Breaking Down Barriers

As with any social change, acceptance of blacks in aviation jobs was slow. Pushed by the justice system and various civil rights organizations, over time, beginning near the end of the 1950s, African Americans were allowed entry into coveted commercial airline positions, with a few pioneers leading the way. They were men and women who had prepared themselves for these opportunities through training and education, and who had the courage to be among the first to enter what was sometimes hostile territory.

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Patricia Banks
Patricia Banks enrolled in Grace Downs Air Career School anticipating a career as a flight attendant. After graduating with high scores, Ms. Banks and her classmates applied for positions with several airlines. Unlike her classmates, Ms. Banks was repeatedly denied employment. Over a ten-month period, she worked through the school to find employment without success. She was given numerous reasons for being passed over for a job including age, poor eyesight and the need for dental work. During a subsequent interview with Capital Airlines, the head flight attendant finally told Ms. Banks that they did not hire Negroes as flight attendants. With the support of Representative Adam Clayton Powell, Ms. Banks filed a complaint against TWA, Mohawk and Capital Airlines with the New York State Commission Against Discrimination. Because the statute of limitations had expired on her complaints against TWA and Mohawk, they were dropped. The complaint against Capital Airlines held strong.

As a result of complaints brought by Banks and other black women to follow, Mohawk Airlines, a regional carrier named in several complaints, hired Ms. Ruth Carol Taylor in 1958. In 1960 the New York State Commission against Discrimination ruled in favor of Ms. Banks and ordered Capital Airlines to hire her within 30 days. The commission’s conclusion: “we entertain no doubt that Miss Banks would have been re-interviewed and employed, had she been white.”

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