In 1922, aviation trailblazer Bessie Coleman became the first woman, African American and known Indigenous American to become a pilot and perform a public flight. Before the age of 34, she obtained her international pilot’s license from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, gave flight lessons to Black Americans and executed fascinating tricks in the air that were never seen before.
As a part of Barbie's Inspiring Women Series, Mattel has released a new doll in Coleman's honor. The Black aviatrix joins the ranks of figures such as Madam C.J. Walker, Ida B. Wells, Dr. Maya Angelou, Katherine Johnson, Rosa Parks and Ella Fitzgerald, who also have dolls celebrating them. The Bessie doll can be seen donning an ensemble resembling one that Coleman often sported: a traditional olive-green aviator suit, tall lace-up boots and a cap with her initials.
“Bessie Coleman broke monumental boundaries for women and people of color during her career as an aviator. As the first Black and Native American female pilot, Bessie is a remarkable icon to inspire children everywhere to soar to greater heights," shared Lisa McKnight, Executive Vice President and Global Head of Barbie & Dolls, Mattel in a press release. "Barbie is thrilled to introduce the Bessie Coleman Inspiring Women doll and continue to amplify Bessie’s passion for encouraging people of color to pursue careers in aviation."
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Gigi Coleman, Bessie Coleman's great niece, spoke with EBONY about the creation of the Barbie doll and Coleman's lasting legacy.
EBONY: This year would have been Bessie Coleman's 131st birthday. What was the process of creating a commemorative Barbie doll in conjunction with Mattel?
Gigi Coleman: I was so excited when Mattel Barbie contacted me and said they were going to do a Bessie Coleman doll. My family has always wanted to inspire youth through aviation and the telling of Bessie's story. When they approached us, I sent the color that I felt reflected in Bessie. I got to weigh in on her skin tone and her outfit to reflect what she wore back in the 1920s. To look at the dolls now is phenomenal—they are so cute!
EBONY: How has your great-aunt Bessie Coleman's legacy impacted your life?
My grandmother, Georgia Coleman, was Bessie Coleman's sister. Bessie raised my mother growing up because my grandmother didn't have time to take care of her. She took my mother everywhere with her and to all her places that she went, such as events and speaking engagements. My mother always spoke of how courageous she was and that she wouldn't take no for an answer. If someone told her she couldn't do something, she would still strive for it to the best of her ability. So my mother was very proud of her and kept her legacy alive through essay contests at her church, petitioning for a postage stamp in her honor and founding a Bessie Coleman Foundation Club years ago.
Bessie was such a trailblazer. She was a very courageous and an inspirational person for everyone no matter their gender or age, especially Black folks—Black men in particular—interested in flying in the 1920s.
EBONY: What other ways is your family continuing the work Bessie set out to do?
In 2013, I founded the Bessie Coleman Aviation All Stars. Our mission is to encourage young people to consider careers in aviation and learn about STEM. We have two pilots that we partner with to help teach these programs as well. Additionally, I'm so happy that Mattel is also partnering with us to celebrate Bessie Coleman's legacy. On January 26th, Bessie’s birthday, we are also teaming up with American Airlines for a special moment to surprise passengers with their own doll. American Airlines was the first airline to hire a Black pilot so it is really special to have this opportunity.