It was with high hopes that Bessie escaped the oppressive Jim Crow south and headed to Chicago. She entered a new world-the ghetto of the north not so different from the segregated south where she had grown up. This new urban community, however, was exciting and offered big city opportunities.

By 1920, 90% of the African American population of Chicago lived on the South Side, between Twelfth and Thirty-ninth streets on the north and south and Lake Michigan and Wentworth Avenue on the east and west. It was a pretty well-balanced place where the wealthy, the well-educated, the middle class, the poor and the hard-working co-existed in generally law abiding harmony. Bessie lived with her brothers Walter, a Pullman porter, and John, frequently unemployed. She decided that she would become a beautician, knowing there were plenty of openings available in the South Side's many beauty shops. Perfecting her skill as a manicurist, Bessie worked in barbershops in an area known as "The Stroll" which was teeming with diverse activities such as banking, stylish shops and restaurants. Still an avid reader, one of Bessie's idols at the time was Robert Abbott, the editor and publisher of the Chicago Defender.

By 1918, Bessie's mother Susan and her three younger sisters, Georgie, Elois and Nilus, had joined Bessie and her brothers in Chicago. Walter and John had served in France during World War I and returned safely, only to witness 1919 Chicago battered by the worst race riot in history. By then, Bessie had been in Chicago for nearly five years. During that time, she had moved north, learned a trade and supported herself, watched her brothers return from war and survived a race riot. As the summer of her 27th year ended, she was still looking for a way to "amount to something." Taking her cue from brother John's teasing remarks about French women flying and having careers, Bessie decided she would become a flier.

© Lynne Spivey
E-mail Webmaster