Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “We are not makers of history. We are made by history.”
Unfortunately, white supremacists have been working hard to ensure that only parts of our nation’s history are uplifted and remembered. With AP African American Studies courses and Black literature being banned from classrooms across the country, it is crucial to seize every opportunity to amplify the Black experience.
To that end, the United States Mint certainly seems to be doing its part. In January, as part of the 2023 American Women Quarters Program, it released a quarter honoring Bessie Coleman, the first Black and Native American woman licensed pilot in the United States. Designed by Artistic Infusion Program artist Chris Costello and sculpted by U.S. Mint Medallic Artist Eric David Custer, the coin depicts Coleman as she suits up for flight.
“Having a coin depicting the first African American and Native American female pilot honoring the life and legacy of someone who fought against racial inequality is monumental,” says Ventris C. Gibson, the current and first-ever Black director of the U.S. Mint. Gibson has been instrumental in advancing the American Women Quarters Program.
“The Mint is showcasing women from all backgrounds and walks of life who were trailblazers during their lifetimes,” Gibson says. “Those actions speak volumes that show we honor our past by memorializing these women for generations to come.”
After being denied aviation training in the United States, Coleman traveled to France in 1920, where she became the first Black woman to earn an international pilot’s license.
When she returned to the U.S. in 1921, Coleman became known for breaking barriers and advancing principles of racial justice and equity.
She refused to perform at air shows where Black performers were not allowed the same rights as white performers, and she proved that Black women could be great pilots and capable leaders.
Today, systemic racism and sexism continue to keep Black women out of aviation. With less than 1% of licensed U.S. pilots identifying as Black women, Gibson says featuring Coleman on the quarter and spotlighting her story provides a unique opportunity to inspire the next generation.
“The American Women Quarters Program celebrates each honoree’s triumphs, resilience, and legacy,” Gibson explains. “I think these quarters particularly speak to girls and women. By placing iconic women like Bessie Coleman on coins, we create an opportunity to inspire all to learn about their amazing achievements.”
The quarter makes Coleman the second Black woman ever featured on a U.S. coin. In 2022, Maya Angelou became the first-ever after her likeness appeared on the quarter.
“For my colleagues and me at the United States Mint, bringing these miniature canvasses of art to life for everyone to see helps shape our future and ensures inclusion of African American women,” Gibson says.
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