In honor of Black History Month, we asked American Express Global Business Travel (Amex GBT) colleagues to share their thoughts about Black pioneers in the travel industry who inspire them for a special AtlasTM series.
Tonya Hempstead, vice president of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I), selected two trailblazers that overcame racial and gender barriers and embody what it means to persevere and push through challenges.
Bessie Coleman, the first Black and Native American woman to earn a pilot’s license
Bessie Coleman dreamed of being a pilot and would not allow anything to impede her goal. Circa 1920, when aviation was a man’s world, she applied and was rejected by flight schools across the United States because of her race and gender. Undaunted, Bessie discovered that flight schools in France were training women to be pilots; however, applications were required to be written in French. With her dream so close, Bessie refused to allow this requirement to deter her and began taking French lessons.
Bessie was accepted into a French flight school and received her international pilot’s license on June 15, 1921, becoming the first Black and Native American woman to obtain a pilot’s license.
Bessie returned to the United States and performed in air shows to inspire and encourage Black people to consider aviation as a career. She gained a reputation for her daring aerial stunts and was referred to as “Brave Bessie” or “Queen Bess” and was regarded as the world’s greatest female flier. Using her newfound celebrity, she took a stand against racism and refused to perform where Blacks were forbidden to use the same entrance as whites.
During her career, Bessie earned enough money to purchase her plane and planned to open a flight school so other Blacks could become pilots. Tragically, she died in a plane accident before accomplishing this goal. However, a flight school was established in her name three years following her death. The school’s founder remarked, “Because of Bessie, we’ve overcome that which was worse than racial barriers; we’ve overcome the barriers within ourselves and dared to dream.”
“I selected Bessie because she stayed true to her dreams. She stood boldly in the face of change, encouraging others to live as she did, always following their dreams. Yet, like other trailblazers, she did not falter in the face of what seemed to be insurmountable barriers and dared to challenge the status quo,” said Tonya.
“Bessie focused on finding solutions to obtain her pilot’s license, proving that although the solutions we seek are not always clear, if we remain diligent, we will find solutions to our challenges.”
Mae Jemison, the first Black woman to travel in space
Mae Jemison aims for the stars. She has been a Peace Corps doctor, chemical engineer, author of children’s books, ballet dancer, tech consultancy firm founder, and one-time “Star Trek” actress. If that’s not impressive enough, she entered Stanford University at age 16 and is fluent in Russian, Japanese, and Swahili. However, she is most recognized as the first Black woman to travel to outer space.
As a child, Mae dreamed of going to space. “At the time of the Apollo program, everybody was thrilled about space, but I remember being irritated that there were no women astronauts,” Jemison is known for saying. Despite the lack of diversity in real space, she found inspiration in fake space as a fan of “Star Trek’s” Lieutenant Uhura, played by the Black actress Nichelle Nichols, and Sally Ride, the first American woman to travel in space.
In 1987, Jemison applied to and was accepted into the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA’s) Astronaut Group 12, which was the first group established after the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. Five years later, she flew her first and only space mission aboard Space Shuttle Endeavour.
“The implications of being the first female Black astronaut can be far-reaching. It inspires millions of people, especially women, to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields and empowers Black women to take roles in places and positions of influence, which opens the door to increased diversity and inclusion in STEM,” said Tonya.
The former astronaut founded The Jemison Group, a technology consulting firm integrating critical socio-cultural issues into the design, development, and implementation of engineering and science projects. Currently, she is leading the 100 Year Starship project, which is dedicated to making human space travel to another star possible within the next century.
“Mae’s post-NASA career is equally impressive. She is undeterred by the unknown and continues to reach for the stars,” she added.
Reflecting on the pioneers we covered over the last three weeks allowed Tonya to reflect on her journey, vision, and goals for diversity, equity, and inclusion.
“Historically, DE&I was limited to certain regions, countries, or groups. Now, it’s a global conversation with numerous voices and concerns, which is why we’ve focused on building a foundation of global inclusion that supports all our colleagues. We are taking intentional steps to elevate the awareness of our colleagues through education while evaluating our processes, policies, and practices to serve the needs of a broader group of people. In addition, we’re working with our clients and partners to assist them with achieving their DE&I goals through our supplier diversity program and other initiatives. We embrace the idea that DE&I is not merely the purview of a few but a moral and strategic imperative that benefits all of us. Like the pioneers before us, it requires vision, courage, grit, and resilience to be a trailblazer,” Tonya remarked.
“Thinking about the immense challenges these pioneers faced and the resilience required to persevere serves as a reminder that although there are still challenges that we need to overcome, through our vision of a better tomorrow, and the courage to challenge, we can create the change we want to see in the world.”