Journalist and nurse Ruth Carol Taylor became the first African American airline flight attendant in the United States when she joined Mohawk Airlines in 1958. While she is most commonly known for her achievement in the airline industry, she spent much of her career as an activist for minority and women’s rights.
Taylor was born in Boston, Massachusetts on December 27, 1931 to Ruth Irene Powell Taylor, a nurse, and William Edison Taylor, a barber. When Ruth was young, her family moved to a farm in upstate New York. She attended Elmira College in New York and in 1955 graduated from the Bellevue School of Nursing in New York City as a registered nurse. After working for several years as a nurse, Taylor decided to break the color barrier that existed in the career of airline stewardesses.
Now called flight attendants, stewardesses at the time were hired primarily based on physical attractiveness and height/weight conformity. Wishing to be the first African American stewardess, Taylor applied to Trans World Airline (TWA) but was rejected and subsequently filed a complaint against the company with the New York State Commission on Discrimination. About the same time, the regional carrier Mohawk Airlines expressed interest in hiring minority flight attendants, and Taylor applied for a position. She was selected from 800 black applicants and was hired in December 1957. On February 11, 1958, she became the first African American flight attendant on a flight from Ithaca to New York City. Three months later, Margaret Grant was hired amid pressure by TWA as the first African American flight attendant for a major airline carrier.
In a 1997 Jet interview, Taylor admitted that she had no long-term career aspirations as a flight attendant but merely wanted to break the color barrier. Six months after making aviation history, Taylor married Rex Legall and was forced to resign from Mohawk due to restrictions that flight attendants remain single. The couple lived in the British West Indies and then London, UK but divorced shortly after the birth of their daughter. Taylor moved to Barbados, where she founded the country’s first professional nursing journal and became active in civil rights. A son was born there in 1969.
Taylor returned to New York in 1977 to resume work as a nurse and co-founded the Institute for Inter Racial Harmony, which developed a test to measure racist attitudes known as the Racism Quotient. In 1985 Taylor wrote The Little Black Book: Black Male Survival in America, a survival guide to help young black men succeed in a racist society.
In 2008, fifty years after her historic flight that broke the color barrier for airline attendants, Taylor’s accomplishment was formally recognized by the New York State Assembly. Now using the name Carol Taylor, the activist lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Sources: Kathleen Barry, Femininity in Flight: A History of Flight Attendants (Duke University Press Books, 2007); Betty Kaplan Gubert, et al, Distinguished African Americans in Aviation and Space Science (Westport, CT: Oryx Press, 2002); “First Black Flight Attendant Is Still Fighting Racism,” Jet Magazine, May 1997: 40; Carol Taylor, The Little Black Book: Black Male Survival in America, or Staying Alive & Well in an Institutionally Racist Society (New York: Little Black Book, 1985).