We often read about Rosa Parks' bravery in refusing to give up her bus seat to a white person in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955, but very little is written about what happened to African-Americans who wanted to board an airplane. They fared no better than Parks did on the buses.
Jim Crow laws, enacted in southern states by the turn of the 20th century prohibited blacks and whites from "comingling" on trains, streetcars, and buses. Perhaps because the airline industry was new there no similar laws in place for air travel, but nonetheless, it was not easy for an African-American to buy a plane ticket. If a black person did manage to buy one, the airline personnel attempted to seat them separately so that white people were not sitting next to them. (Planes must not have been as crowded then!)
Sports figures were among the early African-Americans to push the color line in the air. Professional sports had quickly adapted to using air travel as it meant that game scheduling could be tightened up because it was easier for teams to arrive at their various destinations quickly.
According to Daniel L. Rust in his wonderful book, Flying Across America, Jackie Robinson, who was the first African-American major league baseball player, was expected in Florida for spring training in 1946. He and his bride of two weeks boarded an American Airlines flight in Los Angeles to fly to Florida. In the 1940s planes could not fly across the country without several stops to re-fuel, and when they stopped in New Orleans, Robinson and his wife were not permitted to re-board with the other passengers. Left with time to kill in the New Orleans airport while they tried to get on to another flight, they also were refused service in the coffee shop. When they finally were able to book a flight out of New Orleans the next day, that flight landed in Pensacola, Florida where they were asked to find another means of transportation. They completed their trip, riding in the back of a segregated bus.
Ten years later, jazz great Ella Fitzgerald fared no better. She won an out-of-court settlement against Pan Am in 1956 when the airline refused to honor her group's first class tickets and put them in coach instead.
Like train stations and bus stations in the south, the airport services in southern states were segregated through the 1950s. Black passengers could not get served in airport restaurants, and there were separate waiting rooms and rest room facilities as well. In 1960 a Supreme Court ruling specified that airports were subject to federal standards, and a subsequent study of airports in the south showed that some form of segregation existed in 7 of the 14 states studied. By the mid-1960s all airports in the United States were officially desegregated.
In 1961 an article in The New York Times (6-28-61) noted that New Orleans airport practices were under review as the Justice Department had ruled that the airport violated a nondiscrimination clause they had agreed to when they accepted some federal funding for the new airport. The New Orleans manager is quoted as saying, "We will serve Negroes in the coffee shop." The article goes on to explain: "Until a few days ago Negroes wishing to eat in the International Room or the coffee shop were shunted off to a six-stool snack bar at which cellophane-wrapped cookies, sandwiches, and coffee in paper cups are sold."
African-Americans were denied jobs aboard airliners until the late1950s, effectively the 1960s. Until the increasing pressure from the civil rights movement they were relegated to airport jobs such as skycap (bag handler). The first black stewardess was hired by a Mohawk Airlines in 1957, a local feeder line in New York; at the time of her hiring, the New York State Commission Against Discrimination had on its docket 17 complaints from "Negro girls" [sic] who had been turned down for stewardess positions.
While it's worth a momentary thought that those who faced discrimination before the 1960s might relish knowing who currently has the best seat on Air Force One, what we are really working for is a world where it does not matter.
As Rosa Parks must have sensed, change comes about only after many people push back, one situation at a time.
My latest e-newsletter is about what plane travel was like for passengers in the 1940s and '50s--stewardesses passing out free cigarettes and the like! If you would like to receive the e-newsletter, send me an e-mail with "plane" in the subject line: firstname.lastname@example.org