13 Badass Black Female Travelers From History

by Chelle Roberts Oct 16, 2015

1. Madame CJ Walker 

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You may already know that Madame CJ Walker invented a line of African-American hair care products in 1905 that became so popular that she — despite being born just after slavery ended, orphaned at age of 7, married at age 14, and a widowed single mother at 20 — became America’s first female self-made millionaire.

BUT, did you know Mrs. Walker was a marketing genius who understood the importance of TRAVEL to her business success? Even though commercial flights weren’t in place yet, she criss-crossed the US, Jamaica, Haiti, Costa Rica and Panama introducing women-of-color to her products, training her agents and expanding her markets.

Here’s to the original business travelista making moves at a time when women couldn’t even vote and blacks didn’t have full rights!

2.  Bessie Coleman

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In 1916, Bessie Coleman was a 23 year old manicurist working at a Chicago barber shop. The stories Bessie heard from the pilots who’d returned home from World War I planted a seed in her. But, she ran into trouble when American flight schools would not admit her because she was black and a woman.

Bessie didn’t take “No” for an answer. When she learned the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale in France would take her, she learned the French language then moved to Paris to study. On June 15, 1921, Coleman became not only the first African-American woman ever to earn an aviation pilot’s license, but also the first American of any gender or ethnicity to do so at her school in France.

Unfortunately, she died in a plane crash at the young age of 34. But, we’re inspired by her relentless pursuit of her dream, in the face of racial, financial and cultural challenges.

3. Willa Brown

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Willa Brown was a high school teacher and later a social worker, but she dreamed of using her talents in the air. Unlike Bessie Coleman, who had to move to Paris to get pilot’s training, Willa was able to find a certified flight instructor and aviation mechanic at one of Chicago’s racially segregated airports to train her. In 1937, she became the first African American woman to earn a private pilot’s license here in the United States and later went on to become the first black female officer in the Civil Air Patrol.

On the heels of her own success, Willa became an advocate for other aspiring pilots. Along with her instructor (who she later married) and a few other pilots, she helped form the National Airmen’s Association of America whose main goal was to get black aviation cadets into the US military. Her efforts were directly responsible for the creation of the Tuskegee Airmen, 200 of whom she helped train. This ultimately led to the integration of the US military services in 1948.

Willa passed away in 1992 at the age of 86 having left an indelible mark on the aviation industry and on American history.

4. Janet Bragg

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In 1929, Janet Bragg, a then 22 year old Spelman College grad moved to Chicago to start her nursing career. One day in 1933, when she saw a billboard saying, “Birds learn to fly. Why can’t you?” her childhood interest in aviation was reignited. It wasn’t long before she enrolled as the only woman in the first all-black class at the Curtis Wright School of Aeronautics.

Because the program didn’t yet own any planes, Janet was not receiving the in-flight instruction she needed, so she purchased her own plane and rented it out to fellow students to help defray the cost. Then, when local airfields wouldn’t let them fly due to their race, Janet, her classmates and instructors formed the Challenger Aero Club, purchased land in Robbins, Illinois and built the nation’s first black-owned airport.

Even though Janet’s first attempt at getting her commercial pilot’s license was denied because of her race — as were her applications to fly for the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) program, the Civilian Pilot Training Program and the military nurse corps — she didn’t stop until she reached her goal. In an interview with the Chicago Tribute many years later, Janet said “There were so many things they said women couldn’t do and blacks couldn’t do. Every defeat to me was a challenge.”

Janet flew recreationally until 1965, when she retired to care for her ailing husband and focus on their growing nursing home business. But, she never stopped believing that “the sky is the limit” for Black youth and that they can go beyond the sky into space. Janet died at the age of 86 in April 1993, but not before seeing Dr. Mae Jemison make it to space.

5. Zora Neale Hurstonbrown girls zora neale

Though Zora Neale Hurston had a lifelong love affair with her home state of Florida, she spent considerable time traveling around the country and the world. Her travel adventures began at the age of 14 when she joined a traveling drama troupe. It wasn’t long before her studies in literature and anthropology sparked a deep passion for black folklore.

In 1925, during the Harlem Renaissance, Zora moved to New York City where she helped shape its growing literary scene. And, for the 20+ years that followed, she traveled through the Caribbean collecting black music, poetry and literature, often stopping in places like Bahamas, Jamaica, Honduras and Haiti here she penned her acclaimed novel “Their Eyes Are Watching God.” In 1949, Zora spent 5 months cruising the Bahamas on a yacht with her friend Fred Irvine, a platonic, interracial friendship that was rare for its time.

Though she experienced some tough things in her life, Zora’s passion for travel, cultural folklore and writing were her solace.

6. Bessie Springfield

brown bessieIn 1928, at the age of 16, Bessie Springfield taught herself to ride her first motorcycle. Only three years later, she became the first African-American woman to ride solo across the United States. Eventually, she went on to ride through all 48 of the lower states, Europe, Brazil and Haiti. During World War II, Bessie served as one of the US military’s few civilian motorcycle couriers, criss-crossing the country 8 more times in the process.

Despite her heroics, not everyone was excited to see her on the road. Due to her race and gender, Bessie was often refused accommodations (causing her to sleep on her motorcycle at gas stations), denied race prizes, and even run off the road by angry drivers. But, in 1950, when Bessie moved to Miami, the local press took notice nicknaming her “The Motorcycle Queen of Miami.”

In her lifetime, she owned 27 Harley-Davidson motorcycles and when Bessie died in 1993 at the age of 82, she was still actively riding.

7. Maya Angelou

brown mayaMaya Angelou was the poet who spoke words of life, wisdom and cultural pride, but it was her nomadic soul that inspires us most.

In 1942, when Maya was 14, she became San Francisco’s first female and African-American Cable Car conductor because she “liked the thought of sailing up and down the hills of San Francisco.” In her 20s, she toured 22 countries as the lead dancer in Porgy and Bess. During her early 30s, she lived in Egypt and later moved to Ghana where she was one of only 200 black expats living in the country at the time.

Her long and successful career as a dancer, singer, actor, playwright, poet, author and educator carried her across the US and around the world. As the 5th book in her autobiography series is aptly titled “All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes!”

8. Freddye Scarborough Henderson 

brown freddyFreddye Scarborough Henderson was an applied art and clothing professor and a fashion editor. In 1954, during her first fashion show trip to Europe, she was “treated first-class, like royalty” and she wanted others to share the experience. So, the following year, Freddye and her husband opened Henderson Travel Service, the first black owned travel agency in the Southeast and the first accredited black travel service in the country.

Before commercial airlines were flying to Africa, Henderson chartered a plane to take the first group of American tourists to Ghana to celebrate its independence in 1957. She literally opened up the Africa market to black Americans.

Through the years, she visited 100+ countries, danced with dignitaries and met with monarchs. She even escorted Martin Luther King Jr on his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance trip to Oslo and Andrew Young on trade mission trips to Jamaica and Trinidad. Freddye passed away at the age of 89 in 2007, but her daughter continues the legacy.

9. Ruth Carol Taylor

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After working a few years as a nurse, Ruth Carol Taylor decided to pursue a career in aviation.

She applied for a position with TWA but was rejected. Around the same time, regional carrier Mohawk Airlines expressed interest in hiring minority flight attendants. Ruth was hired from a pool of 800 black applicants. On a February 11, 1958 flight from Ithaca, NY to New York City, she became the first African-American flight attendant in the US.

Unfortunately, six months later when Ruth married Rex Legall, she was forced to resign from Mohawk due to rule that their flight attendants remain single. In a 1997 interview with Jet Magazine, Ruth admitted that she had no long-term career aspirations with the airlines but merely wanted to break the color barrier.

After the short-lived stint at Mohawk, Ruth spent many years serving as an activist for minority and women’s rights. In 2008, fifty years after her historic flight Ruth’s accomplishment was formally recognized by the New York State Assembly.

10. Jill Brown-Hiltz

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Though women like Bessie Coleman, Willa Brown, and Janet Bragg became licensed pilots in the 1930s, it wasn’t until 1978 when Jill Brown-Hiltz joined Texas International Airlines that a black female pilot flew for a major commercial airline in the US.

Jill started flying when she was 17. In an interview with Ebony magazine, she explained that one day when her family drove past a small airport and saw a plane landing, they were inspired to purchase their own plane for weekend and holiday fun. “We called ourselves Brown’s United Airlines,” she said. “I used to ask if I could use the plane like other kids asked for the family car.”

After reading an article about the founder of Wheeler Airlines — the first African American owned-and-operated airlines — Jill persuaded him to hire her as a ticket-counter clerk at the airline’s headquarters where she worked her way up to pilot. She eventually logged enough hours to apply as a pilot for a major airline. Jill joined Texas International Airlines and after a year moved on to cargo carrier Zantop International Airlines where she remained until 1985. Jill now advocates for the rights of other African American aviators.

11. Dr. Mae Jemison

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When it comes to travelistas, Dr. Mae Jemison has outdone us all! In 1992, she took an eight-day mission on the space shuttle Endeavor, becoming the first black woman to go into space.

Mae’s love of culture and travel started long before her foray into space. During her undergrad years at Stanford University, she earned dual degrees in chemical engineering and African-American studies, while becoming fluent in Japanese, Russian and Swahili. During medical school, she traveled to Cuba, Kenya and Thailand, to provide primary medical care to people living there. And, when she finished, Mae served in the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone and Liberia.

After returning from Africa, Mae joined NASA and spent many years training for her trip into space. On the Endeavor mission, she carried with her several cultural artifacts — a Bundu statue from West Africa, a flag representing the AKA sorority, and a poster of Judith Jamison dancing — as a way to bring people with her who normally would not be included on such a journey.

In the 22 years since Mae’s historic flight, she has taught at prestigious universities, founded research institutions and traveled around the world exploring the intersection between the social sciences and technology.

12. Sophia Danenberg

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Despite growing up in what she calls an “indoorsy family,” Sophia Danenberg fell in love with the great outdoors, ultimately learning to mountain climb. She summitted Mt Rainier (Washington state), the Matterhorn (Switzerland), Mt Tasman (New Zealand), Mt Kilimanjaro (Tanzania) and many others. But, Sophia’s greatest feat took place on May 19, 2006, when she became the first African American and first black woman to reach the summit of Mt. Everest, the highest mountain on earth.

It is an extremely dangerous climb that took 7 weeks from base camp to the peak. On the night she decided to climb the summit, she was dealing with bad weather, getting separated from the other climbers, a bout of bronchitis, a stuffed nose, frostbite on her cheeks and a clogged oxygen mask, but she kept going. In an interview with the Chicago Tribune, she said “I was sitting there, and you can see a floor of clouds and mountains, lightning below us. Above us it was absolutely clear. We could see every star in the universe. We knew we had walked out of the storm, and so we said we’re going to go.”

When talking to others about reaching their dreams, Sophia believes “there are more things possible than people imagine or think of. A lot of times people stop themselves by believing it’s too big or impossible or too difficult or somehow out of their reach. …. Go and figure it out. Go do it. Don’t limit yourself with assumptions.”

13. Barbara Hillary

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Barbara Hillary is a nurse and two-time cancer survivor who became interested in cold-weather adventure after she retired. In her 70s, she learned to ski, photographed polar bears in Manitoba, Canada and tried her hand at dog mushing and snowmobiling.

In 2007, at the age of 75, Barbara became the first African-American woman, and the oldest woman, to trek to the North Pole. She hopped on an MI-8 helicopter that dropped her on the arctic ice then skied 8-10 hours a day for three consecutive days. Not only did Barbara make it, four years later, she did it again at the South Pole.

When reflecting on her adventures, Barbara said, “I was looking around for something different to do, something unusual. Usually what comes up is a cruise. I couldn’t deal with that. There’s nothing more boring than the average married people. The only thing worse than that is grandparents. The thought of being stuck on a ship … wasn’t bearable.”

Last week, we talked to Barbara on the phone. The soon to be 84 year old is a ball of energy and sass. We talked about website design, women who travel, and getting sponsorship. It’s clear she will not slow down any time soon. 

This piece was originally published on the blog Brown Girls Fly

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