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Dr. Sheila Nutt

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Travel Back In Style: Pan Am Black Bird

Posted: 04/ 4/2012 6:08 pm

Watching the Pan Am television show brought back fond memories of a special time when travel was prestigious and glamorous. I graduated valedictorian of Pan American Airways flight school on February 14th, 1970 in Miami, Florida. I was elated to be known as a Pan Am stewardess -- a member of an elite group of women who had the world as their oyster. An even more elite group of Black women who traveled to exotic places that most only read about.

In a broader historical context, I was hired as a result of the Civil Rights act of 1964 that mandated equal rights for African Americans and women. By law Pan American World Airways had to increase the number of African-American stewardesses. The airline had recently purchased the Boeing 747 which was going to revolutionize the airline industry by transporting over four hundred passengers at one time on an aircraft with two levels in first class; including a lounge area requiring an increase in the number of stewardess to serve them. It was an auspicious time for us African-American stewardesses.

At every layover we stewardesses went shopping together. There were certain stores that we frequented because they gave a Pan Am discount. We shopped at the most elegant boutiques. In Panama we bought molas from the San Blast Indians; on dresses and wall hangings. I loved shopping in Guatemala for baskets and cotton dresses. Some of the best shopping was in Mexico City. I really enjoyed buying leather clothes in Uruguay. Although we didn't have a layover there, we could order items on the way to Buenos Aires or Brazil and pick up the items on our way back to Miami.

Shopkeepers and tailors were so accommodating of our schedules because we were the consummate shoppers. I was based in Miami at that time and owned a green convertible MG midget sports car and had leather suits, hats and driving gloves to match made during these layovers. Shopping while living in Miami was fantastic because the dollar was so strong. In Haiti we bought wooden salad bowl sets of which I still use today!

On cross-Atlantic trips I observed the mature European women and decided early on that I would emulate them. I loved their elegant demeanor and timeless style. They always looked so chic in their conservative suits, accessories and well-coifed hair. They carried themselves so different from the casual American women. They definitely influenced who I am today and the image I wish to project; a more classic style.

Back in the 1970's African Americans were few and far between outside the continental USA. We were an anomaly in-flight and people were in awe of the young, gifted and Black women who strolled the international airports with such confidence. Many passengers thought we were European, or from the Caribbean. It was beyond their imagination that we could be African American. Racism was still strong at home and abroad. This was most apparent among the white American travelers.

As a Pan Am stewardess we often had access to fashion trends before they hit America because we were purchasing them in Europe. I recall shopping on Carnaby Street in London, buying platform shoes and makeup that were not available in America.

Today my daughters are wearing dresses a local woman crocheted for me in Sao Paulo Brazil; a red fox coat, hat and boa I had made in India, cotton dresses from Guatemala, Louis Vuitton bags from Paris, silk scarves and leather gloves from Rome. I bought pearls from Tokyo, gems from Rio, gold from Liberia and Ghana and the list goes on. Whatever I acquired back then it was with the expectation that one day my daughter would wear it, especially the jewelry. I am grateful to have three daughters who enjoy my purchases and the accompanying stories behind each item.

The Pan Am experience opened my eyes to the world. I was trained to communicate with people from all walks of life, from the villager traveling to Europe or America for the first time to visit a family member to the Head of State attending a meeting at the United Nations. I am instinctively in tune to ones fears and know how to alleviate them with compassion and professionalism. I look forward to encountering new people, food, places and experiences. I take pride in serving others. I am a Pan Am Black Bird!


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