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