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National Women's History Month

Two for Tuesday: Track star Jackie Joyner-Kersee and aviator Bessie Coleman were trailblazing icons in their fields

These black women were superinfluential, but you may not find them outside of a history book

The Undefeated presents “Two for Tuesday” — short features that will post throughout March in observance of Women’s History Month. Each Tuesday, two women who were trailblazers in their fields, whether it be sports or medicine, entertainment or politics, will be highlighted.

The first installment opens with accounts from the 1980s golden era of American women in track and field, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, and a woman who will forever remain a pioneer and hero in aviation, Bessie Coleman.

Jackie Joyner-Kersee

Jackie Joyner-Kersee of long Beach California, clears a hurdle July 15 on the way to an American record in the heptathlon 100 meter hurdles, during the U.S. track and field trials.

Getty Images

Jackie Joyner-Kersee burst onto the scene to light the track and field world for women on fire. She dominated the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea, as the first American to win the gold medal for the long jump while not only setting the record but putting the seven-event, two-day heptathlon event well out of reach with more than 7,000 points, which also earned her gold. She repeated her dominating gold medal heptathlon performance in 1992. Joyner-Kersee holds three golds, a silver and two bronzes, making her the most decorated female athlete in Olympic track and field history. She last competed in the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta — her last event before retiring. At those games, she took home the bronze in the long jump.

Now, Joyner-Kersee advocates for children. After retiring from track and field in 2001 at age 38, she founded the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Youth Center Foundation to encourage youths in her impoverished hometown to play sports. In 2007, Joyner-Kersee established Athletes for Hope with fellow sports icons such as Andre Agassi, Muhammad Ali and Mia Hamm. The organization supports and encourages athletes “to make a difference in the world,” according to its website.

An East St. Louis, Illinois, native, Joyner-Kersee excelled in high school, basketball and track and field, and set the Illinois high school long jump record for women, with a 6.68-meter jump in her junior year. She earned a scholarship to the University of California-Los Angeles in basketball and was a standout on the court and in track and field. At 19, she shifted her focus strictly to track and field and began training for the Olympics, specifically for the heptathlon, later graduating in 1985.

In 1986, Joyner-Kersee married Bob Kersee, her trainer/coach at the time. Bob Kersee coached Joyner-Kersee’s sister-in-law, track star Florence Joyner (“FloJo”), who also blazed in the Olympics and is the world record-holder in the 100 and 200 meters.

Bessie Coleman

Portrait of Bessie Coleman, circa 1920s.

Fotosearch/Getty Images

A pioneer in the world of women’s aviation, Bessie Coleman was the world’s first licensed black civil aviator in 1921. She also became the first African-American woman to fly publicly in the United States.

Coleman earned her license from France’s Caudron Brothers School of Aviation after being denied at flight schools around the United States. Inspired by the birth of aviation warfare in World War I, she completed the program in just 11 months. Coleman specialized in the extremely dangerous field of stunt flying and parachuting, earning a living barnstorming and performing aerial tricks. She remains a pioneer of women in aviation.

She died on April 30, 1926, in a plane crash during a rehearsal for an air show in Jacksonville, Florida. At the time, she’d been dreaming of opening her own pilot school.

Coleman was born in Atlanta, Texas, and was one of 13 children.

 

Kelley Evans is a general editor at The Undefeated. She is a food passionista, helicopter mom and an unapologetic southerner who spends every night with the cast of The Young and the Restless by way of her couch.