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She Broke the Color Barrier When She Became the First African-American Flight Attendant

Ruth Carol Taylor Blazed a New Trail in the Skies

The composition of America’s flight attendant corps began to change after World War II. While many airlines (most notably Eastern and Pan American) had relied on men to serve in the cabins of aircraft, the majority of carriers instead began to hire young women to work aboard their airliners.

Psychologically, it was a stroke of brilliance. In the 1950s, most people had yet to fly, and many were still afraid to. The airline industry’s largest customer base was men traveling for business. By hiring women to work aboard their aircraft, airlines were indirectly challenging the masculinity of the businessmen who still refused to fly. Airline companies were subliminally suggesting that these guys were afraid to travel by air while petite young ladies took to the skies every day of the week.

The women who worked aboard America’s airliners had to be single and young (they were forced to quit when they reached age 32) – and, for lack of a better term, Caucasian. It was a racist, sexist, and ageist employment system that would be challenged and finally dismantled, piece by piece.

The two major classifications of domestic air carriers certificated by America’s Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) in the postwar era were trunks and locals. The trunks were the big airlines that connected major cities (American, Continental, Delta, United, etc.), while the locals connected big city airports with smaller cities. Mohawk Airlines, headquartered in Utica, New York, was one of those local service carriers.

Robert (Bob) Peach was Mohawk’s president, and he had a flair for generating positive press coverage for his airline. Mohawk had chalked up several ‘firsts’: it was the first local airline to dispatch pressurized equipment (Convair 240s); the first local to be awarded a route in direct competition with a trunk carrier (Syracuse – New York City); and the first to start retiring its unpressurized Douglas DC-3s, the standard aircraft used by the local service carriers. In 1954, Mohawk had inaugurated an innovative non-stop scheduled helicopter service between Newark Airport and the Jennie Grossinger Resort in New York State’s Catskill Mountain tourist area. The helicopter service was not profitable and lasted only one summer, but it gave Mohawk good publicity.

Bob Peach obviously took pleasure in running an innovative airline. But perhaps his biggest news-making coup was one with very human repercussions: he broke the color barrier in hiring practices when Mohawk became the first airline in the United States to employ an African-American flight attendant.

Ruth Carol Taylor was a registered nurse who lived in Manhattan and worked for the New York Transit Authority. She wanted to be a stewardess and open the profession up to women of color, challenging the discriminatory hiring practices that were in existence at the time. In 1957, Ms. Taylor was refused employment by TWA – one of the big trunk carriers – and she filed a complaint with the New York State Commission on Discrimination.

Bob Peach saw an opportunity and actively pursued a course of action. He announced that Mohawk was seeking minority applicants for flight attendant positions. Several hundred women applied, and Ruth Carol Taylor was hired by Mohawk in December 1957.

After successfully completing training, she became the first African-American cabin attendant to crew a flight in the United States. On February 11, 1958, Ms. Taylor worked her first segment between Ithaca and Newark. Mohawk received publicity for ‘opening the door’ and the trunk carriers soon followed suit. TWA hired Margaret Grant to become that company’s first African-American flight attendant in 1958.

Ruth Carol Taylor’s tenure with Mohawk was short-lived, as many flight attendant careers were back then. It ended when she married later in the year and, thus, was forced to resign. The requirement that flight attendants remain single during the duration of their employment was yet another discriminatory policy that would be eradicated years later.

In the 1960s, the U.S. government’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) overturned airline flight attendant hiring practices by ruling that women could not be terminated when they turned 32, simply because of their age. The EEOC also decided that women could not be fired for getting married or for having a child. And, if a man could perform the same cabin duties as his female counterparts, he could not be discriminated against on the basis of gender.

The airlines could point the finger of blame at the EEOC when sexist customers complained of the new practices that put men and older women in aircraft cabins as flight attendants – a term that was coming into greater use in order to encompass both stewards and stewardesses. But, in actuality, airline management teams breathed a sigh of relief. Wide-body aircraft were being purchased by trunk carriers and the locals were acquiring jets. Many more flight attendants would be required to staff these larger aircraft types, and now the airlines had an excuse for keeping women in their careers longer and for hiring men: the EEOC made them do it.

Today, the career of flight attendant is open to applicants without regard to race, gender, marital status, sexual orientation, or age. Those fortunate enough to be hired and to complete training will find themselves traveling to places around the country and around the globe, meeting people from all walks of life and from all parts of the world. It is the greatest educational experience and, because of rulings made by a government agency years ago, men and women in their forties and fifties can now begin a late-in-life career working in the sky.

But long before the EEOC forced airlines to change their rules regarding age and gender, one airline president – Bob Peach – had opened the door for one woman – Ruth Carol Taylor – and thanks to that interaction the color barrier was demolished, never to be put in place again.

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