Air hostess Léopoldine Doualla-Bell Smith had endured her share of discourteous treatment from passengers while flying the not-always-friendly skies of the late ‘50s and ‘60s, but everyone has a breaking point. She reached hers one day in the early ‘60s.
While she was helping a passenger settle in at his seat, the man decided to help himself to a generous handful of her breasts. Common stereotypes at the time held that air hostesses and stewardesses, as they were known then, regularly slept with crew members and passengers — particularly wealthy ones, since the jobs paid little. The fact that she was black and the man who groped her was white only complicated the awkward situation.
She had a decision to make: whether to walk away or defend herself at the risk of losing her job. She chose the latter — and slapped the passenger in the face. He got the message, and her employer did, too. “I explained the situation and kept my job,” she remembers. “Degrading treatment of women was everywhere. It was rampant. Both white and black passengers had this expectation that we slept with everyone.”
A native of Cameroon and a princess in the West African nation’s royal Douala family, Doualla-Bell Smith’s aviation career had taken off early when she accepted an after-school job as a ground hostess with the Union Aéromaritime de Transport, the airline that served France’s African routes. Two years later, in 1956, then-seventeen-year-old Doualla-Bell Smith was recruited by Air France to attend flight training at Le Bourget Airfield in Paris in 1956. She joined UAT a year later as an “hôtesse de l'air.”
At the time, Doualla-Bell Smith had no idea she was soaring into history. She’d started flying a year before Ruth Carol Taylor, the woman credited as the first African-American flight attendant in the United States, took her inaugural flight on a Mohawk Airlines route from Ithaca to New York on February 11, 1958. But Taylor’s career ended abruptly six months later when she married, since stewardesses were routinely fired after they wed or became pregnant. Doualla-Bell Smith, now 76 and retired in Denver, managed to keep flying for twelve years, and became known as the first black flight attendant on a major airline carrier in the world. “When I was young there were only white men and women working on the plane,” she recalls. “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.”
In 1960 she was recruited by Air Afrique, a Pan-African airline created to serve eleven newly independent French-speaking nations; she became the airline’s first official hire. “Her employee identification card read ‘No. 001,’” quips her husband of 36 years, LeRoy Smith, a retired Peace Corps executive. “That’s why I always tease her; I nicknamed her double-oh-one.” It didn’t take long before she was promoted to Air Afrique’s first cabin chief position.
Doualla-Bell Smith spent most of her early career traveling throughout France and across the continents of Africa and Australia. Over the years, she developed close relationships with many of her fellow crewmembers within the safe confines of the airplane — but once they stepped off the plane, the racial divide was often clear. For example, during the days of apartheid in South Africa, she was not allowed to leave the plane with her co-workers. Instead of joining them at a hotel, she was literally covered up and whisked away in a waiting
vehicle to stay at the home of a fellow airline employee who lived in the country.
Her first trip to the United State landed her in New York in 1960, the same year as the historic Civil Rights Movement student sit-in at a Woolworth’s counter in North Carolina. The turbulent times unfolding in the U.S. often translated to discriminatory treatment from passengers who were surprised and often resistant to receiving assistance from a “colored” flight attendant. “Some people were just rude,” she remembers. “They would tell me, ‘Don’t touch me and don’t touch my child.’ They would say, ‘I don’t need you to do anything for me.’ I would grant them their wish and just walk away. If I reacted any other way, I would be racist myself. You could get mad and bitter or just move on.”
Weary of the hectic travel schedule, Doualla-Bell Smith finally decided to stop flying in 1969 and left Air Afrique to become the manager of a subsidiary of the company that controlled UTA. She remained in the travel industry for many years, eventually becoming a travel consultant. She and her husband had planned to retire to her native Cameroon, but concerns about the quality of healthcare there pointed them toward Colorado. “Léo wanted to be near family, so we chose mine in Colorado,” says LeRoy of their decision to settle near Lowry, fittingly the site of a former Air Force base. “I have two brothers and two sisters there, so that’s why we came. We love Colorado; it’s one of many places I would have chosen to live had Léo not insisted on being close to family.”
For the past dozen years, Doualla-Bell Smith has gotten her aviation fix twice a month as a volunteer “ambassador” at Denver International Airport. There she sports a white cowboy hat and her signature smile while welcoming visitors to the Mile High City. The fact that she speaks French, Spanish and English (along with her mother tongue of Doualla) is a plus. “I usually help them find the baggage area or give them directions and help them,” she says of the travelers. “I love it; I just love helping people."
When she’s not volunteering, she enjoys spending time with their two grown children and her two granddaughters. And in March, the Black Flight Attendants of America took note of Doualla-Bell Smith’s achievements at the group’s fortieth anniversary celebration at the Flight Path Museum at Los Angeles International Airport. “Members of the Black Flight Attendants of America Inc. have always been mindful of giving back to the community and Mrs. Smith is a wonderful example of that,” says Diane Hunter, who chaired the event. “A beautiful, charming, intelligent lady, whose humility and kindness have shone brightly in many parts of the world for a number of years, Mrs. Smith is quite relatable to our mission to ‘volunteer your time and make a difference.’ Everyone should know of her ‘journey’ to become the world’s first black flight attendant.”
It was a thrill to share the unexpected award with her family, Doualla-Bell Smith says: “I’m very honored, I did not expect this.’
“I’m very proud of her,” LeRoy says of his modest, soft-spoken wife. “I’m glad this happened while she could enjoy it. This is something I know she will treasure for the rest of her life.”
Chandra Thomas Whitfield is an award-winning multimedia journalist whose work has appeared in People, Essence and Ebony magazines, along with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and on NBCNews.com.