It was the summer of 1912, the Olympics in Sweden. Jim Thorpe, a Native American from the Sac and Fox tribe, was representing the U.S. in four events, including the decathlon, which would determine the greatest athlete in the world.
The decathlon took place over three days. On the morning of day two, when Jim went to gather his track shoes for the competition, they were missing.
Without a store to purchase new shoes, he and his track coach went scouring trash bins looking for a discarded pair. His coach found two mismatched shoes that were of different styles and different sizes. One shoe fit fine. The other was too big. But given time constraints, this was his best option. Jim put two pairs of socks on the foot with the big shoe.
Wearing these track shoes, Jim came in first place. And he didn’t just win, he dominated, winning by a margin of about 700 points.
Jim returned home to a ticker-tape parade down Broadway in N.Y. His name was in the papers, the pride of a nation. He was the greatest athlete in the world.
It was 1872 when Victoria Woodhull became the first woman to run for President in the U.S. She didn’t win, but her running was a step in the right direction for gender equality.
But for Victoria, her run for President was on the heels of a number of other important milestones. In 1870, she and her sister became the first female stockbrokers in the U.S. and soon after, opened a brokerage firm on Wall Street. After her success on Wall Street, Victoria became a newspaper editor. A role in which she challenged many conventional norms of the day.
“The air is the only place free from prejudices. I knew we had no aviators, neither men nor women, and I knew the Race needed to be represented along this most important line, so I thought it my duty to risk my life to learn aviation.”
Bessie Coleman was born into poverty in Atlanta, Texas in 1892 to a Black mother and a Black and Native American father. At the age of six she began her studies in a segregated, one-room school, a four mile walk from her home. She studied at this school for eight years, thriving as a math student and developing a love for reading.
When she was nine, her father left the family. And while Bessie continued her studies, she had to pick cotton and wash clothes to help earn money for the now fatherless family.
Throughout her teen years, Bessie was able to save a little money and at eighteen she began college. Her funds however were only good for one term, so she dropped out. But it was here in college that she learned about flying. She read tales of the Wright Brothers and of Harriet Quimby, the first American female pilot.
At twenty three Bessie found herself living in Chicago working as a manicurist and thinking of what to do next. Hearing stories of the war and European female pilots from her brother who had just returned from World War I, Bessie decided to become an aviator. She took on a second job to earn money to enter flight school, but soon discovered that flight schools in the United States only admitted white men.
With help and encouragement from a prominent African American businessman, Bessie learned French and enrolled in a French flight school, the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale. In 1921, Bessie became the first person of African American and Native American descent to earn an international pilot’s license.
Bessie returned to Chicago, but no one would hire a Black woman pilot. So Bessie once again went to Europe to learn to become a stunt pilot and parachutist.
Bessie had a successful, four year career as a barnstormer, or exhibition pilot, becoming known to her fans as “Queen Bess” or “Brave Bessie”. She performed aerial stunts such as figure eights, loops, barrel rolls and daredevil dives until a mechanical failure in her airplane caused her untimely death at the age of 34. Bessie’s ultimate plan was to start an aviation school to train Black pilots.
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Katherine Stinson wanted to be a piano player. So to make money for lessons, she earned a pilot’s certificate, which she was going to use to teach others to fly. But she fell in love with flying and decided to become an aviator instead.
This was 1912, when Katherine was 21 years old. She spent the next six years teaching others to fly, performing flying feats, setting distance records for non-stop flights in the U.S. and Canada, and she become the first female Air Mail pilot in the U.S.
“Friends, I shall ask you to be as quiet as possible. I don’t know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot—but it takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose.”
It was 1912 and Teddy Roosevelt was on the campaign trail. Dressed in his Army overcoat with a 50-page speech folded double in his breast pocket along with his metal spectacles case, Teddy was getting into his open car to go to a speech.
That’s when he was shot.
“I am going to drive to the hall and deliver my speech,” he said.
Having handled guns as a hunter, a cowboy and an officer during the Spanish-American War, Roosevelt knew enough to put a finger to his lips to see if he was bleeding from the mouth. When he saw that he was not, he concluded that the bullet had not entered his lung.
An examination by three doctors backstage at the auditorium revealed that the bullet had been slowed by the thick manuscript and the spectacles case. But there was a dime-size hole in his chest, below his right nipple, and a fist-size stain on his shirt. He requested a clean handkerchief to cover the wound and headed for the stage, where he gave almost a ninety minute speech.
Then he went to the hospital “where X-rays determined that the bullet had lodged in a rib. It would remain there for the rest of his life.”
Alice Stebbins Wells was born in Kansas and educated at Oberlin College, where she studied the need for female police officers. She then went to the Hartford Theological Seminary and became a minister and social worker.
But life took her back to her topic of study in college. She believed that “children and abused and sexually assaulted women needed a female police officer to confide in; most women, she pointed out, were extremely uncomfortable in reporting crimes to male officers.”
So in 1910 she was hired as a police officer in Los Angeles, becoming the first woman in the U.S. to have arrest powers.
Maggie Lena Walker, the daughter of a former slave and cook, was the first woman to charter a bank in the United States in 1902. The bank offered loans and mortgages to black residents of Richmond, Virginia who were otherwise denied service by white-owned banks.
A year later she started a department store allowing black customers to shop with dignity: To enter through the main doors instead of a side entrance, to try on clothing before buying, and to eat at lunch counters. Her store displayed clothing on brown-skinned mannequins and hired exclusively black women to work as clerks.
Later the same year, Walker utilized her newspaper to urge Richmond residents to boycott the city’s segregated streetcar system. The boycott was so effective the company operating the street cars declared bankruptcy two months later.
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“I am poor and naked, but I am the chief of the nation. We do not want riches but we do want to train our children right. Riches would do us no good. We could not take them with us to the other world. We do not want riches. We want peace and love.”