Ruth Carol Taylor, first black flight attendant, still champion of equality


Ruth Carol Taylor didn’t even have any interest in flying, but she had something to prove.

Taylor, a Boston native who grew up in Trumansburg and attended Elmira Collegealready had a nursing degree Bellevue School of Nursing when she sought to become a flight attendant at Trans World Airlines.

Her application was rejected, but when Ithaca-based regional carrier Mohawk Airlines expressed interest in hiring minority flight attendants, Taylor became one of approximately 800 black applicants for the job.

She got the job and in doing so made history.

When Taylor boarded a plane for her first Mohawk flight from what was then Tompkins County Airport in Ithaca to New York in February 1958, she became the first African American to serve as a flight attendant. air in the United States.

“I didn’t want to be a flight attendant. I just wanted to break the color barrier,” said Taylor, 90, who now lives in Brooklyn. “There were no black employees, no pilots. I knew I had a lot more intelligence than the girls they hired in high school.”

A permanent quest for racial justice

Taylor’s tenure with Mohawk was short-lived. Six months later, the airline found another way to discriminate against her.

At that time, airlines required flight attendants – the common term for the job at the time – to be single.

So when Taylor married the man of her dreams, who she said “looked like Harry Belafonte,” the airline’s wedding gift was a forced resignation.

But the brief experience launched Taylor on a crusade — a crusade she continues to this day — to fight for the civil rights of black Americans.

In 1985 she wrote “The Little Black Book: The Survival of Black Men in America”, and she also co-founded the Institute for Interracial Harmony, which developed a test to measure racist attitudes known as the Racism Quotient.

AT racismtest.comanyone can take an anonymous test that indicates whether and to what extent they hold racist beliefs or tendencies.

Taylor’s son, Laurence Legall, 52, who also lives in Brooklyn, continues much of his mother’s mission these days and tries to live up to the standards she set.

“If you want something done, you have to do it yourself,” Legall said of the lessons he learned from his mother. “You have to be strong and keep an eye on the prize. She had determination.”

A lasting legacy, a permanent fight

Among the people Taylor met during his civil rights quest was Michael-Vincent Crea, a Peace Corps veteran who founded a ministry known as One world living systemsan ecumenical organization focused on humanitarian and social justice issues.

Crea, who also lived in the Ithaca area for a while and met Taylor at a community meeting in Harlem, was so impressed with his drive and passion that he spearheaded a campaign to have the name of the Ithaca Tompkins International Airport changed in his honor.

“She had a tireless spirit in her own right, representing women and anyone who was discriminated against,” Crea said. “She’s just a true beacon of equality.”

A new name for the airport is not likely, given that the facility did not complete the process of renaming Ithaca-Tompkins Regional Airport until 2019, after $34.8 million upgrade completedaccording to airport manager Roxan Noble.

Nonetheless, Noble and others recognize the historical significance of Taylor’s first flight.

“It is easy to forget the work of pioneers, as their footprints are often obscured by those who follow them,” said Donna Eschenbrenner, Director of Archives and Research Services for The Tompkins County History Center.

“Ruth Carol Taylor’s accomplishment is part of the larger thread of courage, determination, and hard work that African Americans forged for equal rights in this time, and we are only the better for it,” Eschenbrenner said.

In 2008, 50 years after Taylor’s groundbreaking flight, the New York State Assembly passed a resolution formally recognizing its accomplishment.

Taylor, who said her lineage is a mix of Black, Caucasian and Cherokee Indians, said while much has been accomplished since Mohawk times, the fight for racial equality is far from over. finished.

“Racism is always part of the black experience, especially black men,” she said. “All (people) see is color. They’ve been taught it. It’s infused with us as humans. That’s why I came up with the concept of a racism test. I I’m very proud of it.”

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