PATRICIA BANKS LED THE WAY
by Captain Nancy Welz Aldrich
After WWII the airlines began to be big business as more people could afford to fly. Because it was still very expensive, most passengers were businessmen, and the airlines catered to them. While it was expensive, it was also a very luxurious experience.
A young woman in the 30s, Ellen Church, had been very enthusiast about aviation and wanted to be a part of this new, exciting, and growing industry. Women were not allowed to be pilots, so that was not a possibility. She was a registered nurse and was able to convince several airline executives that each flight should have a nurse on board. In the 30s and 40s, airplanes were not able to fly at the high altitudes of today, so the flights were frequently in low altitude turbulence. The nurse could calm nerves in turbulent conditions, and tend the needs of anyone who became ill during the flight. The “Stewardesses” were seen as caregivers of the air. Ellen was hired as the first “Stewardess.”
In the 50s, the nurse requirement was dropped, and “Stewardess” was a very glamourous and sought after position. One “Stewardess” was quoted as saying, “Next to being a Hollywood movie star, nothing is more glamourous.” They were considered “jet-setting, career women,” and were idolized. They seemed to be the epitome of the perfect American woman.
The airlines would have hundreds of applications for every available spot, so they could be very choosey about whom they hired, and they were! At that time, the airlines were strictly regulated by the government. The government determined where each airline would fly, what equipment they would fly, and the cost of the tickets. With little to distinguish one airline from another, the airlines focused their attention on service.
Since the “Stewardesses” were in charge of the service, they were very particular about whom they hired. They hired young women, who were single, beautiful, slender, well educated, and WHITE! While they did not actually say they would only hire ‘whites,’ the supervisors were told not to hire applicants with certain nose or lip shapes, or hair textures. That would rule out Asians, Hispanics, Blacks, and Jews!
Grace Downs ran a school and placement service for young women who wanted to be a part of this exciting industry, either as a “Stewardess,” or Gate Agent. She advertised that her staff included former airline executives, and that many positions were open.
While a student at Queens College in New York as a psychology major, a young black woman, Patricia Banks, saw an ad for the Grace Downs Air Career Training School. She knew that at 5’6”, and 120 lbs., and fluent in two languages, she was well qualified for the job, so she enrolled in the 3 month school. She worked day and night, and graduated at the top of her class.
In 1956, she was one of several young black women who attended the school. They all graduated with excellent qualifications. The graduates were interviewed by several airlines, TWA, Mohawk, and Capital, among others. Ms. Banks application came back from Capital marked, “see again.” Over a 10 month period she was repeatedly turned down with different reasons given. Finally, the head “Stewardess” explained to her that they did not hire Negros as “Stewardesses.”
In an interview, Patricia said, “…one of the chief hostesses from Capital [Airlines]…she saw me…she said, ‘Pat, I can’t see you go through this anymore.’ She said, ‘The airline does not hire Negroes.’” “It really never came to me that New York was just as racist as the South. I grew up when the South was having such terrible problems, but I had a thing inside of me…this just can’t be, not in New York!” “It was emotionally upsetting.” “But then I vowed, ok…you’re not gonna do this to us. I’m not gonna let you do this. And I decided that I was going to go with it all the way. I don’t care how long it took. And whether it was me that got hired, or somebody else, somebody was going to get hired.”
After learning the truth, Patricia contacted Adam Clayton Powell, an attorney, who later served in the House of Representatives from New York. He encouraged her to file a lawsuit against all of the airlines which had turned her down. She agreed and decided to sue, and was joined in the suit by classmates Ruth Carol Taylor, Mary Tiller and Marlene White. After 4 years of litigation, in 1960, Capital Airlines was forced to hire her. In addition, the others were also hired. Ms. Taylor was the first Black “Stewardess” to be hired. She had been hired in 1958 by Mohawk Airlines.
Patricia is quoted as saying, “I was very, very excited, very happy about it, but I also knew that it was going to be a challenge. … Because here I was, this black woman on this magnificent airline traveling all through the South, so I had to be … perfect. … I knew if I made any mistakes, they would be magnified and I would ruin the chance for other black people.”
Of course, being hired was just the first hurdle. They continued to face racial discrimination from fellow workers, as well as passengers and supervisors. The work was physically demanding, and for these young women it was also very emotionally draining. Patricia had postponed her marriage to accept the job she had fought so hard for. After several months on the job, she resigned to get married. In those days the employment contract stated that any “Stewardess” who married would have to give up her job.
She had fought and won, but by the time the suit was settled, it was time to move ahead with her life. She, along with her friends who joined in the suit, helped bring in a new era in America, and she should be remembered as the hero she was!
(Throughout this article I have put the word “Stewardess” in quotation marks. That was a term used for many years. However, when the airlines began hiring men, that term was dropped in favor of Flight Attendant. “Steward” and “Stewardess” are no longer used)
Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding.