Pan Am Blackbirds

Black Bird Alice Dear

Black Bird Alice Dear

Its prestige and notoriety exemplify a bygone era of travel during the 60s, 70s, and 80s. Many became familiar with Pan American World Airways’s glory via the television series that aired on ABC. Specific words are synonymous with the historical international carrier, especially regarding their iconic flight attendants (then known as stewardesses): elegance, glamour, class, sophistication, allure, glitzy status…Pan Am’s history is certainly intriguing! But what is most empowering is the influence stewardesses had on overcoming social injustice within the airline industry. The Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, the world’s largest flight attendant union, commented:

“The Pan Am drama may be a nostalgic escape to the days before deregulation, but it also highlighted the myriad of social injustices overcome by the strong women who shaped a new career. Weight checks, girdle checks, the no marriage rule, sexism, gender discrimination, racism—all of this was challenged by intelligent, visionary women who helped to usher in the call for social change throughout the country and around the world.”

In 1969, Pan Am hired its first group of African American stewardesses, a major step in diversifying Pan Am and the airline industry at large. As former Pan Am stewardess Dr. Sheila Nutt recalls:

“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.”

Meeting Dr. Sheila and her former colleagues, known as the Pan Am Black Birds, at an event a few years ago was fascinating. While listening to anecdotes of favorite shopping in Rome, dating in Tehran, favored Rio de Janeiro beaches, days off in Tokyo, Morocco, and Kinshasa, I reveled in their knowledge of international flight routes. As far as the average Black experience of the time, this was unchartered territory. Granted, Black musicians and entertainers had exposure to travel while gigging across the globe, and military personnel are often stationed abroad. However, young Black women taking a chance on an unlikely career path, which catapulted them into the unknown, with Pan Am was definitely a foreign concept in ‘69.

Reminiscing, the Black Birds remarked on the commonality of appearance among people of color around the globe. Underscoring that “WE ARE NOT minorities!” they described how little discourse there is about the darker complexioned citizens of countries that aren’t known for browner skin tones. On a layover in Iran, one Black Bird had to convince military that she was in fact an American born citizen and not a brown-skinned Iranian. They were candid about how White tourists perceived them in the early days, many of whom WANTED them to be something other than Black American, making them out to be Latina, Jamaican, from Martinique, or somewhere more exotic than the East Coast or South. The Black Birds asserted their American identity daily. When a passenger asked how she came to speak English so well, Dr. Sheila replied that she was a result of her parents and the Philadelphia school system! The Black Birds exercised their liberties to the fullest extent as Americans with access, and advocated many rights for the women of the diaspora hired into Pan Am after them.

While sharing fond memories, the Black Birds expressed profound gratitude for the world of opportunities Pan Am afforded. The company demonstrated just how wide the door of prospects would open by merit of their intellectual prowess, work ethic, and their willingness to fight for better conditions as women of the world. Working for Pan Am was a first career for most of the Black Birds. What I LOVE most about their post-Pan Am careers is that after retiring these women went on to obtain professional degrees and have had remarkable careers in law, education, medicine, and international social services. Completing her MBA, Black Bird Alice Dear was appointed by President Clinton to an Ambassador ranked position as US Executive Director of the African Development Bank. Dr. Sheila completed her Doctorate of Education and is the Director of Educational Outreach at the Harvard Medical School. Another Black Bird, Attorney Jacqueline Brevard, is now retired from practicing International Law after earning not one but TWO juris doctorates.

May the Black Bird experience guide the wind of progress and success we all find in this life.

By Mai Perkins

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1 Comment

  1. Marvin Scott

     /  November 25, 2015

    I am looking for Toni Martin, maiden name Cotrell, from California.



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