When boarding an aircraft today, passengers are greeted by cabin crew from all races, nationalities and backgrounds. But in 1950’s America, the flying world was very different. Racial prejudices and a mountain of strict regulations meant no African-American Flight Attendants were working for a US carrier. One woman intended to change all of that.
Ruth Carol Taylor first worked as a nurse before turning her attention to changing the colour barriers that existed in American aviation by becoming a Flight Attendant. This is her story.
Taylor was born in Boston on December 27, 1932, to Ruth Irene Powell Taylor, also a nurse and William Edison Taylor, a barber. At the time, black civil rights in North America were virtually non-existent. This was many years before Martin Luther King made his famous “I have a dream speech” in 1963, and times were hard for many African-Americans. Later, the family moved to upstate New York to set up a farm before Taylor followed in her mother’s footsteps and studied nursing at the Bellevue School.
Racial prejudices were not the only thing hindering many hopeful “air hostesses.” Weight, height, overall appearance, marital status and age all played a part in how long your aviation career would last or whether airlines would even hire you. These barriers would exist for many years until crew such as Taylor and others like Iris Peterson began to fight for equality in the industry.
In early 1957, Taylor applied for a job with US major Trans World Airlines (TW). Her application was immediately rejected simply because of her skin colour. This angered Taylor immensely, and she was determined to fight back. And fight back she did, filing a complaint against TWA with the New York State Commission of Discrimination. No action was brought against the airline, but other companies began to rethink their policies on hiring ‘minority’ crew members.
US Regional carrier Mohawk Airlines (MO) was the first to do so, and Ruth, along with 800 other black applicants, applied. Taylor was the only successful candidate, and in December 1957, she was hired. This was the first of several milestones for Mohawk. When they eventually merged with Allegheny Airlines in 1972, they had broken numerous moulds within the industry, including becoming the first to use a centralised computer reservations system, the first to utilise flight simulators and the first regional carrier to inaugurate jet aircraft into service.
Early the following year, Taylor’s training was complete, and she was ready to take to the skies. On February 11, 1958, history was made as Ruth Carol Taylor became the first-ever African-American flight attendant, operating her flight from Ithaca Tompkins Regional Airport (ITH) to New York (JFK).
This was a ground-breaking moment in both American and civil aviation history. Three months later, TWA reversed its decision and finally hired Margaret Grant, the first major US carrier to hire a ‘minority’ crew member.
Forced To Resign
While Taylor’s role had broken racial barriers within the industry, it would be another ridiculous regulation of the time that would ultimately lead to her departure just six months later. Before applying to the airlines, Taylor was engaged to Red Legall. But being a married woman was forbidden by all carriers in the 50s and 60s. So, as her wedding day approached, she was forced to resign from Mohawk.
Although short-lived, her flying career changed the aviation industry forever and was a significant coup in the fight for black civil rights in America.
Shortly after leaving, Taylor and her husband moved to the British West Indies. But much like her flying career, her marriage was short, and the couple divorced after the birth of their daughter.
Continuing The Fight
Her fight for racial equality didn’t stop when she left Mohawk. Taylor continued working to improve civil rights, reporting on the 1963 ‘March On Washington’ and becoming an activist for consumer affairs and women’s rights.
She returned to New York in 1977, where she co-founded the Institute for Inter-Racial Harmony. This institute developed a test to measure racist attitudes known as the ‘Racism Quotient’. In 1985 she wrote ‘The Little Black Book: Black Male Survival In America’, a survival guide for young black men living in the United States.
Speaking to JET Magazine in 1995, Taylor admitted that she had never actually wanted to become a stewardess; she merely did it to break the racial barriers that existed in the industry:
“It irked me that people were not allowing people of colour to apply… Anything like that sets my teeth to grinding,” Taylor said in an interview with JET Magazine in 1995.
It took 50 years after that first historic flight for her achievement to be recognised when in 2008, her accomplishments were acknowledged by the New York State Assembly.
Slow To Change
Although Taylor’s hard-fought victory at Mohawk and the subsequent hiring of Margaret Grant by TWA had broken boundaries, the promises airlines made to change their ways were not forthcoming. American carriers hired no further African-American flight attendants until Capital Airlines (CA) took on Patricia Banks in 1960.
Her employment was only possible after the New York State Commission Against Discrimination ordered the company to hire Banks. She had applied four years earlier and had fared well in their initial screening process. But the airline failed to follow her application and did not clarify why they would not give her a position. A public hearing in February 1960 ruled that Capital had illegally discriminated against Banks because of her race, and they would have to hire her.
Even when African-American crew finally did begin flying careers with the major airlines, they still faced an uphill struggle for equality. In 1962, Northwest Airlines (NW) employed Marlene White, who later claimed that the carrier had singled her out for degrading treatment, and although she had graduated within the upper third of her class, she was fired with no cause. She was later reinstated after she too, filed a complaint.
Today, aircrews of all creeds, colours, nationalities and ethnic backgrounds work together for the same goal, to ensure the safety and comfort of the travelling public. It took a long time for airlines, especially in America, to accept African-Americans as equals and hire them as Flight Attendants. It is with no doubt that if it hadn’t been for the battle carried out by those first incredible women, Marlene White, Margaret Grant, Patricia Banks and, of course, Ruth Carol Taylor, it would have taken much longer for the fight for racial equality within our industry to be won.
N.B. The author does not own the rights to any of the images included in this article unless otherwise stated.
© Jet Back In Time by Lee Cross