Léopoldine Doualla-Bell Takes Flight in the Midst of History
World’s First Black Flight Attendant Flew on Flights of Airlines Certified as Members of the International Air Transport Association.
By Angelia D. McGowan
She chose to fly.
Léopoldine Emma Doualla-Bell Smith was born in Cameroon which was the part of a German territory acquired by France after the allied victors of World War I divided the German colony known as Kameroun in Central Africa. A princess of the royal Douala family, she was offered after school employment in her home town as a ground hostess by the Union Aéromaritime de Transport (UAT) Airline that served France’s African routes along with Air France for two years. Having graduated from high school in 1956 at the age of 17 years, Ms. Doualla-Bell was recruited and sent to Paris for flight training by Air France.
In 1957 she began flying as a stewardess with UAT which later merged to became part of Union de Transports Aeriens (UTA). In 1960, she was invited to move to the airline created to serve 11 newly independent French-speaking nations, Air Afrique. As the only qualified African in French aviation, she was the first employee hired by the airline company, symbolically issued Air Afrique’s employment identification Card No. 001, and soon promoted to be Air Afrique’s first cabin chief. Leroy Smith, her husband of 38 years and former Peace Corps executive, affectionately calls her “Double Oh One.”
She made history, but at the time she did not know that she was making history as the first Black person to serve as a flight attendant for any airline. The first Black flight attendant in the U.S. is Ruth Carol Taylor, who took her initial flight in 1958.
During Doualla-Bell Smith’s time as a flight attendant she traveled to many places throughout the continent of Africa and to places such as Australia. Today, to be a flight attendant is still a coveted role that attracts many people wanting to travel the world and make a living. It was and is not without pitfalls stemming from the common perception that flight attendants must look a certain way, be single and be available to the sexual desires of passengers.
Doualla-Bell Smith took the role, but it was not her first choice for careers. She wanted to be a veterinarian, but her father and uncle informed her that the choice would not be appropriate for a woman. It would be a good political move for someone from her family to work with a French airline to continue building positive relationships with France. If she had not taken the role with the airlines, her career options would have been limited to being a teacher, a nurse or a wife.
Because of the color of her skin, white passengers treated her like an outcast. “People were impolite,” says Doualla-Bell Smith, who was often reprimanded when she tried to help the passengers, who were often presidents and ministers, with their luggage. “They told me ‘Don’t touch this!’ ” She stayed on assignment with a smile and said in French, “I just want to help you.”
While it did impact her, she knew that she was not the only one enduring this treatment in the pre-independence period for her country. Her uncle, who was a doctor, worked out of his home. He had one wing of the home reserved for Black patients and the other side reserved for white patients. He often encountered White patients who said, “Don’t touch me!” He saw through the trying times and was the one who initially recommended her for a career in the airlines.
She took negative statements and actions with a grain of salt, even treatments that would equate to sexual harassment today. But at one point, she’d had enough and slapped a white man. He had touched her breast. The thought of losing her job was far behind her right to defend herself. Understanding and fighting for her rights is ingrained in her blood. Her grandfather, Rudolf Doula Manga Bell, was Doula King and resistance leader in the German Colony of Kamerun. For his actions to save his land, he was hanged for high treason in 1914 and became a martyr in the eyes of Cameroonians.
After she was questioned by her employer about her actions, she explained the situation and kept her job. She does say this degrading treatment of women “was everywhere. It was rampant.” Both white and Black passengers had this expectation that flight attendants slept with everyone. For some of the women, it was really difficult to say no because of the pressure and because they were desperate for the basic things in life, like food.
Doualla-Bell Smith says the flight attendants were paid very little, so it was very possible for them to be swept off their feet or forced into relationships by executives, whether they were passengers or fellow employees. In fact, she was not the only Black woman in her initial training. There were two others, but they couldn’t stay on because they became pregnant. Fortunately, her training was in Paris where she had family. She lived with them and they helped to chaperone and protect her.
As a first, she had a front-row seat to how Black people lived around the world. Although, she had some positive relationships with her co-workers, the racial barriers became very pronounced when they stepped off the plane in other countries.
When traveling to South Africa, she was not allowed to de-board the plane with her co-workers. “They did not know they could not bring a Black,” says Doualla-Bell Smith, who recalls being covered and whisked away to the home of a fellow employee, who lived in the country. She stayed with that person for one night until the airplane departed the next day. She could have entered the country as an “Honorary White,” but protocol needed to have been put in place by the airline prior to the trip.
The term was used by the apartheid regime of South Africa to grant almost all of the rights and privileges of whites to various ethnic groups. It was reserved for special visitors such as author E. R. Braithwaite. In his 1975 book “Honorary White,” he talks about his six weeks traveling the country with this special designation. Braithwaite, a Guyanese native, is author of the 1959 semi-autobiographical novel, “To Sir, With Love,” which was turned into the movie starring Sidney Poitier.
An inaugural trip by her airline to Australia brought a unique experience for Doualla-Bell Smith. As expected flight attendants did their share of sight-seeing, including visiting with the Aborigines community. “They were looking at me. I was looking at them. They touched my skin. They touched my hair.”
Her first trip to the U.S. landed her in New York at the height of the Civil Rights Movement in 1960, the year that marks the historic student sit-in at a Woolworth’s counter in North Carolina. At that time Black people were not allowed to sit with white people in restaurants. She did not go to lunch with her co-workers. The 21-year-old treated herself to a visit to the United Nations instead.
For more than 10 years, she enjoyed returning home with gifts from all over the world for her family, but eventually, the flying became tiring. Doualla-Bell Smith says, “After years of living out of a suitcase it became boring. I was tired.”
In 1969, she stopped flying and left Air Afrique to become manager of a subsidiary of the same company that controlled UTA, Reunited Transport Leaders Travel Agency, in Libreville, Gabon. Six years later she re-located to Washington, D.C. to study English at the Americanization School in Georgetown. It was also during this time that she met her American husband.
Upon her return to Gabon in 1976, she was hired by Air Zaire as station and office manager at the Libreville Airport. She was one of the major forces in the dynamism of and support for the local chapter of the Skål Club, the international association of professionals, leaders and friends seeking to promote a responsible travel and tourism industry.
She and her husband moved to Lima, Peru in 1983 for a Peace Corps assignment. She remained in the travel industry and worked as a travel consultant. When she and her husband retired in Denver in 2003, they established the Business and Intercultural Services for Educational Travel and Associated Learning (Africa bis, et al)—to encourage on-site education about African and other cultures. Today, she volunteers at the Denver International Airport through its ambassador program, welcoming visitors to the Mile High City and assisting them as they navigate their way through the airport.
“The way we were raised was to welcome foreigners to make them feel like they are home,” says Doualla-Bell Smith. “This is the reason I was open to cultures. It’s why I like working at the airport. You see different languages and cultures.”
The Smiths continue to travel frequently, but there’s still uncharted territory for her. She would like to go to Tibet. This thirst to learn about the world is something she wishes for all young people. She believes they should take a job for maybe a year or two in the travel industry to learn about “different accents, different foods and different views around the world. Open yourself and be careful to be yourself.”