Black History: Special Delivery!!
Leopoldine Emma Doualla-Bell Smith (1939 – ) is recognized as being the world’s first black flight attendant. Born in the West African country of Cameroon, Smith was a princess in the royal Douala family. At the age of 17, Smith was offered the opportunity to serve as a “ground hostess” for the Union Aeromaritime de Transport (UAT), a french airline that served France’s African air routes. Smith graduated from high school in 1956 and then went to Paris for additional ground hostess and flight education training. She began her career as a flight attendant in 1957. Smith did not know, at the time, that she was making history, becoming the first black flight attendant for any airline in the world. She began her career one year prior to Ruth Carol Taylor who is recognized as the United States’ first black flight attendant in 1958. Smith recalled that her hiring as a flight attendant was big news in her hometown and that that it was announced in the local newspaper. On her first air flight, she recalled that she was screaming and yelling, thinking she might die, while another flight attendant attempted to calm her down.
Smith joined Air Afrique in 1960. At the time she was the only qualified African in French Aviation to serve in this role. The airline had been created to serve eleven French speaking nations. Her employee id card was No.001. She would rise to the rank of cabin chief. Her career encompassed flying across various countries in Africa and as far away as Australia. She experienced discrimination from passengers due to the color of her skin. However, dark skinned passengers were often were excited to see her working in a flight attendant role. Smith recalled that during the days of Apartheid in South Africa that she was not allowed to leave the plane with her co-workers. She was also not allowed to stay in a local hotel with the other flight attendants. She remembers being covered up and taken to the home of a fellow employee who resided in South Africa for lodging. On her first trip to the U.S. she landed in New York in 1960, a time of great conflict during the Civil Rights movement. Smith was frequently the victim of sexual harassment and during one incident she slapped a white male passenger who touched her breast. She feared she would be fired for her actions, but she was not.
She left Air Afrique in 1969 after twelve years there. She joined Reunited Transport Leaders Travel Agency in Gabon. Smith then moved to the U.S. and settled in Washington, D.C. She enrolled in Georgetown University and studied English. There, she met and married her husband, Leroy Smith. In 1976, she returned to Gabon and worked for Air Zaire as a manager at the Libreville Airport. Smith and her husband joined the Peace Corp in 1983, taking an assignment in Lima, Peru. During her time in Peru, she also worked as a travel consultant. The couple retired in 2003 and relocated to Denver, CO. In Denver, they established the Business and Intercultural Services For Educational Travel and Associated Learning (BISETAL). The organization promoted education about African and non-western cultures. BISETAL was in operation for 4 years. Smith currently volunteers her time in the ambassador program at Denver International Airport. As an ambassador, she welcomes travelers and assists them with directions. Smith was honored in 2015 at the 40th anniversary of Black Flight Attendants of America organization at the Flight Path Museum located at the Los Angeles International Airport.