Do you ever think that daily , without hesitation, we jump on planes, watch the flight attendants go through their routine of showing us where the exit signs are and listen to the pilot as he or she tells us that we are flying at 30 thousand feet, that there was a time when these jobs weren’t open to people of color? Today, no matter what race or nationality these people are, we take it for granted that they are qualified in their jobs to get us safely from from point A to point B.
There was a time when Black Americans, no matter their expertise or qualifications, were not allowed to fly planes for or serve passengers on a major airline.
Today, I am proud to introduce you to a few people who took to the skies, broke color barriers and made history.
Fasten your seat belts, it is going to be a smooth and enlightening ride.
Welcome to the first leg of our trip aboard the American Airlines flight through history. Our pilot is Captain David Harris, the first African American Pilot to be hired by a major airline. Captain Harris was born in 1934 in Columbus, Ohio. He is a graduate of Ohio State University and joined the Air Force where he graduated from advanced flight training in 1958. He began flying Boeing B-47 Stratojets and then B-52’s. He left the Air Force in 1964 and applied for a pilot’s position at American Airlines. Captain Harris hassaid that so many of the Tuskegee Airmen came before him but were discriminated against because the nation wasn’t ready to have African-American pilots. He came along at the right time with the right stuff to break the barrier. Captain David Harris retired from American Airlines in 1994 after flying for the airline for 30 years. (Thanks to D.R. Stewart of the Tulsa World Harold)
The second leg of our trip will be on Mohawk Airlines where Ruth Carol Taylor, the first African-American Stewardess in the United States, will be serving us. Racial Desegregation in December of1957, caused Mohawk Airlines to hire Ms. Taylor. Sadly, Ms. Taylor’s career as a Stewardess ended six months after it began when she became a married women. Airlines would not allow any woman who was married or became pregnant to be a stewardess. Regardless of this discriminatory practice, Ruth Carol Taylor made history.
Gather your things, we must hurry to catch a United Airlines flight where Captain William R. Norwood will be piloting a 747 through history. Captain Norwood is the first African American Pilot hired by United Airlines and the first African American to achieve the rank of captain at the airline. Captain Norwood was born and raised in Centralia, Illinois and graduated from Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Illinois. A man of firsts, he was the first black quarterback on SIU’s football team. He was inspired while in school by a teacher who was member of the Tuskegee Airmen Black fighter squadron. Captain Norwood began flying in ROTC at SIU before flying B-52’s for the Strategic Air Command in the U.S. Air Force for six years. When he left the service he applied at both American Airlines and United, and because his family had flown on United and enjoyed the service on the flights, he took the job as a pilot for United Airlines. He retired in 1996 after thirty years of service. In the grand hall of the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago hangs a United Airlines plane with the name Captain William R. Norwood under the pilot window.
We are almost at the end of our trip and we have one more short flight to catch on Atlantic Southwest Airlines. Flight Attendant (they aren’t called Stewardess anymore) Diana Galloway greets us as we enter the plane, while Robin Rogers makes sure our bags are stored properly. 4-Captain Rachelle Jones and First Officer Stephanie Grant are preparing the cockpit. Have you realized it yet? This flight is staffed by an all female, African American flight crew. In 2009, these four women didn’t know that flight 5202 from Atlanta to Nashville would make history.
As we cruise along on this final leg and gaze out of the window we must remember the ones that flew through these clouds leaving a jet stream so that the aviators we just spoke about could move forward on their path.
Pilot Bessie Coleman was the first African American to earn an international pilot’s license. She flew planes and performed stunts at air shows despite the racism. In 1920 Ms. Coleman was living in Chicago and had decided she wanted to be a pilot. She found a sponsor in Robert Abbott, founder and publisher of the Chicago Defender. There weren’t any African American pilots in the area and the white pilots wouldn’t teach her. Mr. Abbott told her to go to France to learn. The French weren’t racists and were the world leaders in aviation, so off she went. On June 15, 1921, she completed training and was awarded her Federation Aeronautique Internationale pilot’s license . She flew all over Europe performing in air shows and came back to the U.S. in 1922. Ms. Coleman founded an aviation school for all races and was affectionately called “Queen Bess”. Pilot Bessie Coleman was killed in a plane accident on April 30, 1926, and is buried at Lincoln Cemetery in Chicago, Illinois. She is recognized as a hero of early aviation.
The Tuskegee Airmen were young black men who came from all over the country to enlist in the U.S. Air Force to become the first black military airmen. These men wanted to serve their country during World War II. Some were trained to fly single -engine planes and later they became twin-engine pilots, navigators or bombardiers. Even though people thought that black people lacked intelligence, courage, or skill, most of these men were college graduates or were still in undergraduate school. Others were required to take comprehensive entrance exams. All worked and trained as hard as any other airman. From 1941-1946, 996 pilots graduated from Tuskegee Army Air Field receiving commissions and pilot wings. Navigators, bombardiers and gunnery crews were trained at other military bases. Mechanics were trained at Chanute Air Force base in Rantoul, Illinois. The Tuskegee Airmen served overseas in either the 99th Pursuit Squadron or the 332nd Fight Group. They flew in combat in North Africa, Sicily and Italy. These airmen flew to protect their country only to land and have to fight racism. In 1945, when these honored men who fought proudly and effectively returned home from the war they were not allowed to obtain jobs as pilots for airlines. They did, however, inspire men and women to not give up and to work hard to break the barriers of racism in the skies.
Well, the Captain has told us to fasten our seat belts and prepare for landing. We have met some great people on this flight through history. The wheels touch the runway and as we depart the plane we say thank you to Bessie Coleman, The Tuskegee Airmen, Flight Attendant Ruth Carol Taylor, American Airline Captain David Harris, United Airline Captain William R. Norwood, and the history making all female flight crew of Atlantic Southwest Airline Flight 5202, and all the African American trailblazers in aviation for a safe flight back home.
Until next time, keep your EYE to the sky!
Co-host of The Traveling Eye