The story of pioneering Black flight attendant Patricia Banks-Edmiston

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Wednesday, April 5, 2023
How Patricia Banks-Edmiston broke the color barrier in aviation
Edmiston fought the fight and, as a result, took flight as the first Black flight stewardess for a commercial airline in the United States.

NEW YORK -- They say the sky is the limit, but for Patricia Banks-Edmiston, that's only if you're willing to fight for it.

As a pioneering Black flight attendant in the United States, Edmiston blazed a path that continues to elevate generation after generation. But being the first isn't always easy.

To hear Edmiston tell it, the following words were what sparked the match for her trailblazing path: "They don't hire Negroes."

"I was in college and I happened to look at an article in a fashion magazine about Grace Downs Air Career School, and I got this feeling, 'Gee, it would be nice to be able to fly around,'" Edmiston said to Sandra Bookman on "Here & Now."

The thought of flying around soon became a dream worth pursuing, as Edmiston later applied and was accepted at Grace Downs. But it wasn't long before she noticed that high marks would take her but so far.

"I was interviewed by Mohawk (Airlines), TWA (Trans World Airlines) and Capital Airlines - and I got no results," she said. "So one of the chief stewardesses mentioned to me one day outside, she said, 'I hate to see you go through this, but they don't hire Negroes.'"

Using the adversity as fuel, Edmiston decided it was "time to do something."

Having endured a great deal of racism in her time, Edmiston refused to let it silence her voice and seize control of her story. She spoke with a family friend, who introduced her to Adam Clayton Powell Jr., who in turn led her to filing a complaint with the New York State Commission Against Discrimination.

After filing in 1956, the court ruled in her favor in 1960 and ordered Capital Airlines to hire her within 30 days or it would go the Supreme Court. Shortly after, Edmiston received a call from the president of Capital Airlines welcoming her to the team.

But before that fateful call, Edmiston's fight had already opened doors to other women in flight: Ruth Carol Taylor was hired as the first Black flight attendant, working for Mohawk Airlines.

When asked about what it felt like to fight the fight, Edminston described it as something she needed to do.

"Having racism all of my life, in one aspect or another, I had to," she said. "This sort of put the icing on the cake that racism existed here, and the only way you find out about it, it's so hidden, is if a situation like this: you apply as a Black person for a job, and you find out you're not wanted because you're Black."

Edmiston is a special guest in this installment of "Here & Now."

"Here & Now" is a community affairs program from WABC-TV New York.