Africa: This Cameroonian princess became the world’s first black flight attendant in 1957
The achievements of Léopoldine Doualla-Bell Smith, Cameroonian princess and successful flight attendant, goes a long way to prove how African women worked hard to elevate their social status at the time when the continent was fighting for freedom from colonial masters.
Many African women broke barriers in various fields and industries that changed the stereotype and paved the way for millions of black women around the world to venture into fields society had ruled out for them.
In 1957 at the age of 17, Léopoldine Doualla-Bell Smith became the first black person to serve as a flight attendant. On that historic day, Léopoldine was a flight attendant for Union Aéromaritime de Transport (UAT) in France just a year after being recruited by Air France and taken to Paris from her home in Cameroon after high school in 1956.
Speaking to NBC news in 2015 after being honoured at the fortieth anniversary of the Black Flight Attendants of America organization at Los Angeles International Airport’s Flight Path Museum, Léopoldine Doualla-Bell Smith shared memories from that fateful day saying: “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 aeroplane. “I kept thinking, ‘what if I die?’”
Léopoldine Doualla-Bell Smith’s journey into aviation began while she was in high school and took an after-school job as a ground hostess with UAT in Cameroon. UAT would go on to become Union de Transports Aériens (UTA) which served as the only air travel system for France to Cameroon. It was there that young Léopoldine got discovered and recruited for training.
In 1960, after her successful first and subsequent flights, Léopoldine was offered a job by Air Afrique, a Pan-African airline owned by many West African countries created to serve 11 newly independent French-speaking nations. She became the first air attendant and woman to be hired by the airline making yet another history. Léopoldine accepted the offer and moved back to Africa working for Air Afrique.
While working with the airline, Léopoldine exhibited great work ethics and thanks to her qualification, she was promoted to the position of Chief Cabin Crew, the first in the history of Air Afrique.
Despite breaking barriers and records, it was not an easy journey for Léopoldine Doualla-Bell Smith. During her early years as a flight attendant, she was the only black woman working with several white flight attendants.
She was not accepted by several passengers and sometimes had to get off flights due to unsettled disputes. Aside from this, Léopoldine also had to deal with working with several white flight attendants who were racists.
In her own words, she said, “They were rude; they would tell me not to touch them or not to touch their things. I would just walk away and help other people. I did my best not to let it bother me.” She also experienced sexual harassment and at one point had to slap a white man for intentionally touching her breasts.
After working with Air Afrique for twelve years, Léopoldine Doualla-Bell Smith become the manager of Reunited Transport Leaders Travel Agency in Libreville, Gabon in 1969. She then relocated to Washington DC to learn English. She later took a job with Air Zaire as station and office manager at the Libreville airport and moved to Gabon with her husband, Leroy Smith, until 1983.
In 1983 , the couple moved to Lima, Peru for a Peace Corps assignment. While there, she worked as a travel consultant. After retiring in 2003, the couple moved to Denver and established the Business and Intercultural Services for Educational Travel and Associated Learning (BISETAL) which encourages on-site education about Africa and other non-western cultures.
ELIZABETH OFOSUAH JOHNSON