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Léopoldine Doualla-Bell Smith vividly remembers her first flight at the tender age of 17.
“I was yelling and screaming and [the other flight attendant] was telling me to calm down,” she recalls, laughing at the memory of the first time she’d experienced soaring amid the clouds in an airplane. “I kept thinking, ‘what if I die?’”
Doualla-Bell Smith had no idea that first flight – as terrifying as it seemed – would mark the beginning of an illustrious aviation industry career that would ultimately span nearly five decades and earn the honorable distinction of being known as one of the world’s first black flight attendants.
In celebration of their 40th anniversary, the Black Flight Attendants of America recently honored Doualla-Bell Smith, 76, now retired in Denver, for her years of service at the Flight Path Museum at the Los Angeles International Airport.
“When I heard of Mrs. Smith's generous humanitarian efforts and spirit of volunteerism, I knew she had to have been a woman of substance of whom we all should be proud,” explains event chairperson Diane Hunter. “Everyone should know of her ‘journey’ to become the first black flight attendant in the world: on every continent and particularly in this country where we were emerged in a historic struggle for equal civil rights under the laws of the [U.S.] Constitution.”
History buffs may know that Ruth Carol Taylor is on record as the first African American flight attendant in the United States. Her initial flight was reportedly February 11, 1958 on a Mohawk Airlines flight from Ithaca to New York. Unfortunately her career abruptly ended six months later due to a common practice among airlines of the day of releasing flight attendants who got married or became pregnant.
As a stewardess with Union Aéromaritime de Transport (UAT) Doualla-Bell Smith, who was born in the West African nation of Cameroon, actually took flight for the first time the year before Taylor in 1957.
“When I was young there were only white men and women working on the plane,” she remembers. “I was one of the first blacks to be hired and it was a big deal; everybody in my town was talking about it. It was even in the newspaper.”
Her aviation career took off early on when Doualla-Bell Smith, a princess of the royal Douala family of Cameroon, accepted an after-school job as a ground hostess with UAT (which later merged into the Union de Transports Aériens or UTA), the airline that, along with Air France served, France’s African routes. She stayed on for two years and after graduating from high school in 1956 at the age of 17, Doualla-Bell Smith was recruited and sent to Paris for flight training by Air France.
She joined UAT a year later as an “hôtesse de l'air,” what flight attendants were called then. By 1960, she was recruited by Air Afrique, a Pan-African airline mainly owned by many West African countries created to serve 11 newly independent French-speaking nations.
In fact, her stellar credentials as an African with French aviation experience helped her stand out so much she became the airline’s first official hire (in fact, her employee identification card literally read “no. 001”). It didn’t take long for her to get promoted to Air Afrique’s first cabin chief position.
Although clearly ascending in her career aspirations, the friendly skies weren’t always so friendly to Doualla-Bell Smith.
Many times her brown skin was unfamiliar and unwelcomed by passengers, who shunned her. “They were rude; they would tell me not to touch them or not to touch their things,” recalls Doualla-Bell Smith. “I would just walk away and help other people.”
Doualla-Bell Smith says she usually shook off the discriminatory treatment with a smile and carried on with her other duties. “If I reacted to that racism any other way I would be racist myself,” she says, emphatically. “I did my best not to let it bother me.”
Hunter says Doualla-Bell Smith’s grace under pressure was among the many reasons she was selected as an honoree. “It is interesting that our sister across the sea had experienced the same roadblocks as we, here in America, had during the same parallel of time while seeking employment, particularly in the field of aviation,” says Hunter.
“She is a true pioneer and also a legend. She broke through the barriers and for that we are most grateful.”
During the days of apartheid in South Africa she was not allowed to walk off the plane with her co-workers. Instead of joining the rest of the crew at a local hotel, once she was covered and whisked away to the home of a fellow employee who lived in the country.
On the job she also battled sexism, the unfortunate consequence of the rampant stereotype and expectation that flight attendants – who were paid very little at the time – could easily be coerced into sleeping with crew members and passengers, particularly wealthy businessmen. “You had to be short, thin, attractive and available,” quips LeRoy Smith, Doualla-Bell Smith’s husband of nearly 36 years, a former Peace Corps executive, about the purported employment prerequisites for flight attendants way back when. “Things have changed a lot since then, but that’s how it was.”
Again Doualla-Bell Smith says she took it all in stride, politely brushing off sexual advances that could likely score millions in a sexual harassment lawsuit these days. One time in particular though, she got so fed up that she risked losing her job when she slapped a white male passenger who had boldly chosen to fondle her breasts. “I was worried that I would get fired, but I simply explained the situation to the company and I kept my job,” she remembers.
During the earlier part of her career Doualla-Bell Smith spent most of her time travelling throughout the continent of Africa, France and Australia. Although she developed close relationships with some of her fellow flight crewmembers over the years, the racial divide was clear when they stepped off the plane in other countries.
For example, during the days of apartheid in South Africa she was not allowed to walk off the plane with her co-workers. Instead of joining the rest of the crew at a local hotel, once she was covered and whisked away to the home of a fellow employee who lived in the country.
The U.S. wasn’t any better. Her first trip to the States landed her in New York at the height of the Civil Rights Movement in 1960, the same year as the historic student sit-in at a Woolworth’s counter in North Carolina.
It was a tumultuous time and Doualla-Bell Smith says she enjoyed getting a front row seat to history as it unfolded right before her eyes. “There was so much happening at that time,” she says. “It was amazing to see.”
Even with the pitfalls and challenges she faced during her 12 years as a flight attendant, Doualla-Bell Smith says she feels fortunate to have enjoyed an exciting career that provided so many opportunities for her to travel the globe and see other cultures firsthand.
In 1969, she decided to stop flying and left Air Afrique to become manager of a subsidiary of the same company that controlled UTA. She remained in the travel industry for many years and eventually became a travel consultant. The Smiths had hoped to retire in Cameroon, but their health challenges combined with limited access to quality healthcare in her homeland eventually landed them in Colorado in 2003.
“With our health issues, we knew we’d never make it there,” says LeRoy Smith. “Léo insisted that we move to Denver because we have family here; where she’s from family is so very important. I have two brothers and two sisters there, so that’s why we came. We’ve enjoyed it very much.”
For four years in Denver the couple operated the Business and Intercultural Services for Educational Travel and Associated Learning —to encourage on-site education about African and other diverse cultures.
Today Doualla-Bell Smith is a familiar face at the Denver International Airport. As part of its volunteer “ambassador” program, she dons a white cowboy hat and sports her signature smile while welcoming visitors to the Mile High City.
When she’s not volunteering, she enjoys spending time with their two grown children and grandchildren. The soft-spoken grandmother was humbled to share her honor – and her story – with family members during last weekend's ceremony. Adds Doualla-Bell Smith: “I’m very honored; I did not expect this. It feels good to be honored; very, very good.