Who was the first African-American flight attendant for a U.S. airline?
The skies weren’t always so friendly to black people. In the mid-1950s, the handful of black employees working for the major U.S. carriers were in service positions, and all the pilots (male only) and flight attendants (stewardesses or hostesses, in the vernacular of the day, and female only) were white, until Feb. 11, 1958, when Carol Taylor, born in 1931, made her inaugural flight for Mohawk Airlines as its “first Negro airline hostess.”
The airline industry had been under increasing pressure by civil rights groups to hire African Americans. Taylor and another African-American woman, Dorothy Franklin, backed by New York’s State Commission Against Discrimination, had applied to TWA for a stewardess position; both were rejected.
At the same time, likely motivated more by a desire for publicity than to integrate, the Ithaca, N.Y.-based Mohawk Airlines was seeking to hire a black stewardess. Taylor suspected that the fact that she was “near-white enough with aquiline features, so-called” and had “answered the questions about race in the way I knew they wanted them answered” moved hers to the top of the pile of 800 applications. For six months Taylor worked at what she later called “an upstairs-maid job” and was never once asked to join the rest of the crew for meals.
After Mohawk, Taylor threw herself into grassroots and civil rights activism. She founded the group Negro Women on the March and participated in the March on Washington. At the end of 1963 she moved to Barbados, where she founded the island’s first professional nursing school and fought for consumer rights and women’s rights. In 1977 she returned to New York City, where she was determined to do something about the divisions that plagued the country. In 1982, collaborating with the psychologist Mari P. Saunders, Taylor invented the Racism/Colorism Quotient, or R/CQ, Test, akin to the IQ test but measuring racial bias in commercial, educational and social settings.
Together they founded the Institute for Interracial Harmony, with the hefty goal of administering the test to all professionals who might be tasked as decision-makers for black people and facilitating diversity-training seminars. In her work and life she created a new vocabulary, calling herself a “blacktivist” and rejecting the notion of there being multiple races, substituting “colorism” for “racism” and embracing the “hueman race”: “many colors, one race.”
In 1985 Taylor self-published The Little Black Book: Black Male Survival in America, or Staying Alive and Well in an Institutionally Racist Society, a rule book inspired by her son’s criminal treatment by police when he sought their help after a mugging in which he was the victim. This son, Laurence Legall Taylor, has picked up the mantle from his mother, advocating on the institute’s website for the administration of the R/CQ Test in an article addressing the Michael Brown case in Ferguson, Mo. Nearly 50 years on, Carol Taylor has never diminished the act that launched her participation in the fight for civil rights. The byline on her blog, the Carol Taylor Word: Subvert the Dominant Paradigm, reads, “Carol Taylor, the First Black USA Flight Attendant.”