“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.