Monday, June 3, 2024

Fly the Friendly Skies? The First African American Stewardess

 By Susan Zehnder, Education Director

Do you remember Mohawk Airlines? The “Route of the Air Chiefs” airline carried passengers all around New York State. 

It was one of the first feeder airlines to take advantage of the 1944 Civil Aeronautics Board’s (CAB) push to increase access to regions previously not served. A decade later, Mohawk Airlines increased another kind of access, by hiring the nation’s first woman of color as a stewardess.

Mohawk airlines was the renamed Robinson Airlines operating out of Ithaca, NY. Inventor Cecil S. Robinson started it as a side business to his aerial surveying company, though it wasn’t always profitable. The CAB push meant the government was willing to subsidize new routes, and Robinson sold operations to Robert Peach, one of his pilots and a Cornell University law student. Peach had learned to fly as a pilot during World War II. By 1948, Mohawk Airlines was certified as a regional carrier and flying routes throughout the region, including in and out of Elmira/Corning. In less than a decade, the company outgrew their Ithaca facilities and moved their headquarters to Utica. The growth in aviation encouraged competition among the airlines, and they actively looked for innovative approaches to appeal to passengers. Social norms were changing. In 1956, the carrier publicly expressed an interest in hiring flight attendants of color, and one year later, Mohawk hired twenty-five-year-old Ruth Carol Taylor.


Taylor had lived in upstate New York, graduated from college, and was a practicing nurse. She was born in Massachusetts, the eldest of two daughters of Ruth Irene Powell, a registered nurse, and William Edison Taylor, a barber. The family lived in New York City for a short while, then moved to Trumansburg, so that her father could run a farm. She attended Trumansburg Central High School, and then enrolled at Elmira College.

In 1951, her father died and her mother moved back to New York City. Taylor then transferred to Bellevue School of Nursing in NYC. She graduated and practiced nursing for three years before applying to be a flight attendant. At that time, airlines hired nurses to reassure the flying public, so that was a good fit. However, no airline had hired anyone of color. Taylor, interested in flying, applied to Trans World Airlines (TWA) and was interviewed three times, but was not selected. Determined, she filed a complaint with the New York State Commission on Discrimination. About that same time, Peach, perhaps realizing that things needed to change, instructed his company to look for good candidates. Almost 800 women of color applied and were interviewed to be a Mohawk hostess. The company only hired one, Ruth Carol Taylor. Her first flight was February 11, 1958, and generated so much publicity that TWA quickly hired Margaret Grant and declared her as their first African American flight attendant.

Six months after her first flight, Taylor hit another discriminatory wall and was let go for violating the rule that all stewardesses must be single. She had married her fiancé, Rex Legall. The couple moved to the British West Indies and then to London. They divorced and Taylor moved to Barbados. In Barbados she created the country’s first professional nursing journal. In 1977, she returned to NYC bringing her son and daughter with her.

Ruth Carol Taylor was an activist all her life, fighting for racial equality. She participated in the Civil Rights Movement, co-founded the Institute for InterRacial Harmony, and after her son was mugged, wrote The Little Black Book: Black Male Survival in America or Staying Alive and Well in an Institutionally Racist Society.


Being the first of anything isn’t always easy, but seeing Taylor in her uniform certainly encouraged other young women to consider the profession. When interviewed for an article in JET magazine, Taylor shared that she “…didn’t take the job because she thought being a flight attendant would be so great...I knew better than to think it was all that glamourous. But it irked me that people were not allowing people of color to apply…Anything like that sets my teeth to grinding.”


An activist to the end, Taylor was 92 when she died in May 2023.


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