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.
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.
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.