When aviation pioneer “Queen Bessie” Coleman was told she couldn’t ever fly a plane back in the early 20th century, the trailblazer set her sights on the skies anyway, becoming the first African-American person to earn her pilot’s license, and inspiring young black girls for decades to come.
That’s why, when 8-year-old Noa Lewis was told she couldn’t do her school report on the little known Coleman instead of Amelia Earhart, the budding rebel followed suit and did it anyway.
“I wanted to learn more about her so I can know what she did and what was important about what she did,” Noa tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “I like that she followed her dreams and didn’t let anyone else tell her no.”
Noa’s defiant determination would eventually lead her to meet Bessie Coleman’s great niece, Gigi Coleman.
It all began early in February, when Noa’s second-grade class was assigned to put on a “wax museum exhibit,” in which students would dress up as a historical figure and give a presentation on the individual’s life and accomplishments. When Noa was assigned Amelia Earhart, she was “extremely upset” when she couldn’t remember the name of the Earhart’s fellow groundbreaking aviator. Luckily, her mother, Moniqua Lewis, was able to help her identify Bessie Coleman, who she had first seen on an episode of Disney Junior’s Doc McStuffin at age 4.
“We had seen this episode about a doll that wanted to fly and her name was Queen Bessie,” Moniqua tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “For months after, I was looking for a doll of Bessie Coleman for my 4-year-old. I could only find a small section of a sticker book.”
When her mother brought up “Queen Bessie” in the car after school, Noa was determined to do her paper on her idol. “I want Queen Bessie,” Noa said at the time. “I want to do my paper on the black female pilot.”
After Moniqua successfully pleaded with Noa’s teacher to allow her to change her assignment, the project proved to have some other obstacles. “Looking online, all the books were over the head of an 8-year-old,” Moniqua explained. “I started looking up places that knew about Bessie Coleman.”
Moniqua then reached out to the Chicago Museum, the National Aviation Hall of Fame and the National Women's Hall of Fame to help provide information and artifacts that the second-grader could use for her project. Noa’s report soared past all the organization’s expectations. The second-grader learned some French, printed out a pilot’s license and drew a backdrop with an airplane approaching in the background to impersonate Coleman moved to France to earn her official pilot’s license.
When Moniqua sent Noa’s final project to the National Aviation Hall of Fame, the organization was so impressed, they offered to fly Noa’s family from their Georgia hometown to Ohio to meet Bessie Coleman’s great niece, Gigi Coleman. Coleman would be performing a one-woman show about “Queen Bessie” as a part of the Air Force Museum Foundation's Living History Series sponsored by the National Aviation Hall of Fame.
“I thought this was crazy, it’s just a report,” says Moniqua. “They said, “It’s not just a report. This woman is not recognized enough in history and Noa is doing something really important.’”
Excited to meet a relative of her idol, Noa drew a portrait of Bessie Coleman to give to Gigi at the event. “I was very excited to meet her. She told me about how she goes around telling people more about Bessie Coleman,” Noa tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “She inspired me to try harder and for me to do something even though somebody says no.”
Noa made sure to tell Coleman about her craziest aspirations, including jumping off a plane someday. Coleman, in turn, said that the real one woman show was Noa herself.
Moniqua was touched and grateful for National Aviation Hall of Fame, which gave Noa the opportunity to have one of the “most important moments of her life.” Noa will now also be traveling to upstate New York to give her Bessie Coleman presentation at the National Women’s Hall of Fame in June.
“This was just a school assignment. If every kid could just do a school assignment on someone they admire, it could change their life,” says Moniqua. “Learning and doing research on Bessie, she had no idea about flying, no foreign language skills, but she was so determined to do it. And hearing Gigi talk about [how Bessie] was supposed to be held down by so many people, and she still pushed through it...It showed her that you can do anything.”
And the second-grader is determined to do it all.
“I want to be a lot of things,” says Noa, adding that she is also inspired by the first black female astronaut Mae Jemison. “I like to be an artist and a movie star and a mathematician and a scientist and a ballerina.”
Moniqua knows her determined and confident daughter can rise to the challenge. “She challenges me everyday she wakes. She’s the kind of girl that you tell her you can’t do it all and she says why not,” says Moniqua who believes her little math wiz will end up working for NASA. “She’s so sure she will be in history books,” she says, “and that she can change the world.”
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