Honoring The Past
Thursday, February 8, 2024
APFA honors the contributions of Black professionals in aviation by breaking down existing racial barriers.
Commercial aviation started as a profession solely for white men in 1912. The profession evolved by 1936 to be a female-dominated field by way of a white Iowan nurse named Ellen Church, who envisioned nurses on board aircraft to help alleviate the anxieties surrounded by flying. This change came with stringent requirements. A 1936 New York Times article described the ideal Flight Attendant as “These girls who qualify for hostesses must be petite; weight 100 to 118 pounds; height 5 feet to 5 feet 4 inches; age 20 to 26 years. Add to that the rigid physical examination each undergoes four times every year and you are assured of the bloom that goes with perfect health.” In addition to those requirements, Flight Attendants were required to stay single and childless throughout their employment or face instant termination.
Ruth Carol Taylor
It would take two decades before the first African American Flight Attendant took flight in 1958. In 1957, Ruth Carol Taylor filed a complaint with the New York State Commission Against Discrimination (NYSCAD) after facing rejection by Trans World Airlines despite qualifying for the position. She was ultimately selected from an applicant pool of 800 African American women to become a Flight Attendant for Mohawk Airlines, taking flight on February 11, 1958, from Ithaca to New York City. Six months later, Ruth Carol Taylor’s career ended due to the marriage ban.
“The historical weight is beautiful, but I think the most important part is that the barrier was broken. I always said it didn’t have to be me, but that it was going to be a Black woman.”
At the same time as Ruth Carol Taylor’s fight to get hired, another qualified African American woman named Patricia Banks-Edmiston filed a suit in 1957 with the NYSCAD for racially discriminatory hiring practices after being rejected by several airline companies such as Mohawk Airlines, Trans World Airlines, and Capital Airlines. It would take three years for her to have the commission rule in her favor, forcing Capital Airlines to hire her within 30 days or have the case go to the Supreme Court. She began her career in May 1960. Her historic win was met with backlash, however. She received threats of violence in letters after the ruling and needed protection from law enforcement to ensure her safety. She also experienced extreme racism when she flew to the South, even having incited a riot by staying with her crew at a white-only motel during a three-day trip to Tennessee.
Patricia Banks-Edmiston’s historic win knocked down the barriers facing African Americans in aviation and helped create opportunities for their employment. Reflecting on that, Patricia Banks-Edmiston said, “The historical weight is beautiful, but I think the most important part is that the barrier was broken. I always said it didn’t have to be me, but that it was going to be a Black woman.”
Closer to Home: Joan Dorsey
American Airlines hired Joan Dorsey as its first African American Flight Attendant in 1963. After graduating top of her class, she became the first African American promoted to a supervisor role in Flight Service. She completed 36 years with American and retired in 1999.
Reflecting on and honoring the past leads us to appreciate the present and to cultivate a brighter future of diversity, unity, and justice for all. Let us promote the lessons, stories, and legacies of resilience, courage, and triumph. May we always remember and honor the contributions and achievements of Black pioneers throughout history, not only in February but every day of the year.
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