June 19, 1865, Texas—A Union Army General, Gordon Granger, read aloud General Orders No. 3 in Galveston, Texas. The orders informed the enslaved African Americans of Texas of their freedom, and that the Civil War had ended. That momentous occasion became known as Juneteenth and was commemorated annually.
June 19, 1925—A young Black woman climbed into her aircraft and took to the skies in Houston, Texas. White and Black audiences, separated by different seating arrangements, cheered in unison. They looked on in astonishment as she performed aerial barrel-rolls, loops, dives, and an assortment of other stunts designed to entertain. Coleman was barnstorming, a form of aeronautical entertainment that became especially popular during the 1920s, which was a large part of her flying career. This performance was further distinguished by an additional element: Coleman was performing in her home state. At hundreds of feet up above the spectators, could Coleman see the faces of the segregated audience? Could she hear the rumbles and applause? Did she notice the color of their skin from way up there? Did it matter?
On the ground, although they applauded for the same primary reason, as Coleman continued to dazzle, the spectators were witnessing something from completely different perspectives, with the utter most distinguished of appreciation. The scene, taking place on Juneteenth, was a stark reminder of how far opportunities for Black Americans had come in just under 60 years, and how far there was to go. There Coleman was, the first African American woman to earn a license to fly, entertaining from above the very grounds that denied her the opportunity to pursue that precise dream. It was, after all, only a little over a half-century since slavery became abolished by law in the United States. Had it been decades earlier, Coleman and the African American onlookers present at her show could have been considered someone else’s property.
June 19, 2021—the day officially declared as Juneteenth Day of Observance, has become an annual day of observance that honors African Americans’ freedom and their long journey in fighting for it. The recognition, signed into law this week, may have brought the matter to the attention of some for the first time, but to many African Americans, the date had been well known and reflected upon long before.
Did Bessie Coleman consciously fly on that June day in 1925, on her home turf, in honor of her ancestor’s attainment of constitutional freedom? That remains unclear, but the significance of that moment is clear. Perhaps many amongst the audience made the connection; perhaps some were unaware. Those answers may never surface, but those individuals that were a part of that profound moment—Coleman included—are forever etched in historical significance.
Coleman’s flight on Juneteenth in 1925 cannot be overlooked. Its prominence cannot be concealed. By that time, slavery had been condemned, but equality and opportunity were still restricted. Coleman experienced those restrictions firsthand; her journey, her persistence, and her resilience reflected the same traits her forebearers exhibited for centuries. She was flying on that June day, 60 years exactly since Union troops arrived in Texas with the news that the more than 250,000 enslaved African Americans in the state were free by executive decree, because like her ancestors, she did not falter when challenged with immense adversity. Coleman understood the importance of her achievements, and that she, like many of her brothers and sisters, was still fighting for equality and the most basic of human rights. It’s only fitting that when she was offered a role in Hollywood, the brightest stage of them all, she walked away without hesitation and said, “no Uncle Tom stuff for me," when she realized the role perpetuated a negative stereotype.
Bessie Coleman’s actions are enough evidence to support the notion that she knew there was still much turbulence ahead. She, and people like her that are unafraid to pursue the impossible in daring to be different, are the reasons why ideas of change are not just ink on paper or spoken word, but the reason why real change occurs. In that same show she was performing at in Houston, Texas, and another in her hometown in Waxahachie, Texas, Coleman refused to perform if whites and Blacks were to enter through separate gates. She challenged that racial barrier and won that fight. While audiences still ended up in segregated seating once inside, Coleman undoubtedly left her mark in the ways that she could—including by showing what she was capable of, as a Black woman, and inspiring others to follow in her footsteps. A century later, those marks have not faded; on the contrary, they have become monumental symbols of hope and inspiration. It is suitable that the declaration of Juneteenth as a national holiday in the United States came merely days after the one-hundredth anniversary of Coleman’s colossal, and often overlooked, achievement in claiming her place in the sky.