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What it was like traveling the world as one of the first Black Pan Am flight attendants

(CNN) — In the summer time of 1969, Sheila Nutt was one of simply two Black girls in a crowded Philadelphia lodge, ready to interview for a coveted position as a flight attendant for Pan American World Airways.

Nutt was a 20-year-old faculty pupil dwelling in Philadelphia. A pair of years beforehand, she was first runner-up in the Philadelphia division of the Miss America pageant.

“I was the first African American to be selected as the first runner-up,” Nutt tells CNN Travel at present. “Although I was not selected as the winner, I was very excited about the outcome anyway.

“I variety of felt like a trailblazer.”

In between rounds, Nutt chatted with the other pageant contestants about her life goals, voicing her dreams of becoming a model or an actress. One of the women mentioned the airlines were looking for flight attendants — the advent of the jet engine had opened up international travel and airlines were booming.

Nutt was intrigued by the idea of working as a flight attendant. It was a ticket out of Philadelphia and to her future.

“There was a chance that if I turned a stewardess, I may very well be found on an airplane,” says Nutt.

After the pageant ended, Nutt recalls eagerly flipping through the local Sunday newspaper with her best friend Sandy. They turned to the job listing page and spotted an ad posted by Pan Am.

The role wasn’t open to everyone. Applicants had to have a college education, speak a second language and be a certain height and weight, and eye glasses were banned. But the Civil Rights Act of 1964 forbade discrimination against applicants based on race, so applicants from all backgrounds were encouraged. The first wave of Black flight attendants had started flying a few years previously, and Nutt and Sandy were keen to join them.

As she sat waiting to be interviewed, Nutt flicked through the Pan Am brochures laid out on the coffee table in front of her. Bright images of Rome, Paris, Istanbul and Buenos Aires were splashed across the pages.

“I’d solely examine these locations in historical past books,” says Nutt.

The thought of visiting these destinations was thrilling.

“Oh my gosh, I really need this job,” Nutt recalls thinking.

No longer did Nutt see working as a flight attendant as a means to fulfill a larger dream of acting or modeling — flying sounded like a dream job in itself.

“Traditionally, African Americans weren’t traveling the world, we have been going from Philadelphia to Atlanta,” she says. “So the complete concept of seeing the world was thrilling for me.”

The interview went well. Nutt says she wasn’t thrown when the interviewer asked her to demonstrate her “stroll.”

“I’d been in magnificence pageants, I knew about strolling throughout the room in a approach that confirmed a degree of grace and confidence,” says Nutt.

Two weeks later, Nutt received a telegram informing her she was in. All that was left was to pass a medical exam and to head to Pan Am training school.

“When I received the telegram, I ran upstairs to my bed room, I opened it, and I screamed and hollered, and I mentioned, ‘Oh, my goodness!’ and my mom thought that one thing unhealthy had occurred.”

Nutt recalls her parents initially voicing some concerns about her accepting the job.

“They grew to understand and perceive my need to get out of Philadelphia and to see the world. I needed to see these locations that I had examine. I needed to make use of the language that I had studied for 4 years in highschool,” says Nutt.

Nutt’s friend Sandy wasn’t hired by Pan Am, but ended up working at United. The two women stayed friends, and were soon swapping stories of their adventures.

A new chapter

Nutt was delighted to obtain this telegram confirming she was accepted by Pan Am.

Philip Keith for CNN

After her closing semester of faculty, Nutt traveled to Miami for coaching in January 1970. She would not recall any pre-training nerves.

“At 21, you haven’t any concern,” Nutt says. “It was simply pleasure.”

Due to the Pan Am domestic flight schedule in 1970, Nutt had to travel from Philadelphia to Miami via Puerto Rico. The long journey was her first taste of what the next chapter of her life would look like.

“On that flight from Philadelphia to Puerto Rico, I knowledgeable the stewardesses on Pan Am that I was going to coaching faculty and so they have been simply fabulous. They have been so variety and so they have been so encouraging and telling me all the nice issues that I might be experiencing.”

Nutt flew to Miami First Class on a Boeing 707. Back then, flight attendants would cook food for passengers mid-air. Sitting in the in-flight lounge, Nutt overheard one of the crew members discussing how tired she was of eating steak on the job.

Nutt remembers listening in disbelief. How could anyone tire of eating steak?

“My eyes have been opened, ” she says. “And I was simply very excited — I suppose that is the operative phrase, pleasure — and keen to seek out out what the world needed to provide me.”

The Miami-based training lasted a month. Nutt was the only Black woman in the class.

Nutt (center row, fourth from left) was valedictorian of her Pan Am training class.

Nutt (heart row, fourth from left) was valedictorian of her Pan Am coaching class.

Philip Keith for CNN

Growing up, Nutt had regularly discovered herself in areas during which she was the solely individual of coloration.

“I developed the skill to code-switch, the skill to embrace range, fairness and inclusion and justice early on in life,” she explains. “I realized how you can accommodate and overcome the prejudices and racism and bullying and disrespectful habits that some individuals tried to impress upon me.”

Nutt grew close to many of her classmates, some of whom she remains in touch with today.

“Over 50 years later, we talk, we share our tales,” says Nutt. “I’m very glad to have encountered these girls. It was a really useful studying expertise for all of us, as a result of many of my classmates had by no means seen an African American in individual.”

Nutt says the majority of trainees were “open and receptive and keen to include range into their very own private {and professional} sphere of affect.” She did come face to face with some prejudice, and recalls one trainee who was more difficult, and who subsequently didn’t pass their probation.

“I didn’t permit their issues to have any impression on my skill to achieve success, my skill to seek out happiness and pleasure, and fulfill my very own function,” says Nutt.

Nutt describes the training curriculum as “very intensive.” The new recruits learned about “meals, language, grooming, wines — we turned connoisseurs of which wines have been from what space, which wines went with explicit menus.”

But training wasn’t only about learning to make travelers comfortable.

“Our foremost focus was the security of our passengers,” explains Nutt. “So we had very intensive security coaching — we needed to, of course, go examinations, take checks.”

Flying in the 1970s

Sheila Nutt still has her Pan Am uniform and bag.

Sheila Nutt nonetheless has her Pan Am uniform and bag.

Philip Keith for CNN

Nutt graduated from Pan Am coaching as valedictorian of her class, and began flying out of Miami.

“I was amongst the first to fly on the Boeing 747, in order that was my favourite airplane — maybe that it held greater than 400 individuals at a time. And it was in the vanguard of aviation historical past again in the Nineteen Seventies,” says Nutt.

“The 747 would go to Italy, to Rome, which I actually loved as a result of I cherished the historical past of Rome. I cherished being a vacationer there, I cherished consuming the meals and procuring in Rome.”

Nutt also enjoyed traveling to Nairobi, the Kenyan capital, and staying in the InterContinental Hotel. InterContinental was owned by Pan Am, so flight attendants were usually put up in the glamorous hotels during layovers.

On board, Nutt, who after six months working for Pan Am became a purser, and later a stewardess manager, cooked fine food for passengers that was served on china plates.

“In the First Class, we cooked the whole lot from scratch,” she says, recalling meticulously perfecting roast beef to passengers’ likings.

Nutt enjoyed talking to travelers and says she was proud to be a Black ambassador for Pan Am, and for the US more broadly.

“We were the de facto ambassadors of America at that time. When people got on the airplane, that’s what they saw.”

Sheila Nutt, former Pan Am flight attendant

“We have been the de facto ambassadors of America at the moment. When individuals received on the airplane, that is what they noticed.”

Nutt and her fellow Black flight attendants would sometimes face discrimination from White passengers. Nutt recalls one particular interaction with a White passenger from South Africa, which at the time was racially segregated under apartheid.

“This explicit passenger was disrespectful to me, and so I ignored him and continued to do my job,” she says.

Nutt says other travelers were “flabbergasted” by this man’s behavior.

“He went again to the galley and instructed the different stewardesses, or flight attendants, that he needed to apologize, however he didn’t have the capability to return and apologize to me. But I understood the place he was coming from, I knew that he had points that weren’t my points.”

Nutt also recalls that Black Pan Am flight attendants were given special dispensation to fly to South Africa, granted honorary “White standing.”

“It was very emotional. It was a really eye-opening and academic expertise to have an opportunity to enter South Africa throughout apartheid,” says Nutt.

Creating a community

In rest periods in-air, Nutt and her fellow flight attendants would talk about their jobs and lives.

She describes her relationship with other Black Pan Am flight attendants as a “particular camaraderie.”

“We shared tales, experiences and encouragement,” says Nutt.

Pan Am’s height and weight restrictions weren’t limited to recruitment — flight attendants were required to maintain a certain look and were sometimes subject to random weight checks. Nutt says such requirements were tolerated by Pan Am crew because of the travel opportunities the job afforded them.

“We knew the restrictions, and we have been keen to place up with the restrictions, as a result of we felt it was value it,” she says.

“We have been keen to play alongside. I believe we have been keen contributors.”

Put me on record, it was a fabulous life. I enjoyed it. And when I did not enjoy it anymore, I left.”

Sharing a legacy

Sheila Nutt is now focused on sharing the stories of fellow Black Pan Am flight attendants and is working on a podcast project.

Sheila Nutt is now targeted on sharing the tales of fellow Black Pan Am flight attendants and is engaged on a podcast venture.

Philip Keith for CNN

Nutt moved on from Pan Am in the Nineteen Eighties. Before leaving, she enrolled on a Pan Am program that allowed flight attendants to check throughout the week and fly on the weekends. She acquired a doctorate from Boston University, writing a dissertation on flight attendants and occupational stress, and later studied for a Master’s diploma in theological research from Harvard Divinity School.

When Nutt left flying, she began working in schooling, and most just lately served for fourteen years as the Director of Educational Outreach Programs at Harvard Medical School’s Office for Diversity Inclusion and Community Partnership, earlier than retiring in 2020.

Nutt has been married for almost 4 many years to her husband, who’s from Ethopia. The couple lived in Addis Ababa for ten years.

“I loved being a stewardess, I learned so much about the world and myself traveling to foreign countries,” says Nutt, reflecting on her profession at present. “My respect for and appreciation of different cultures has contributed to the success of my marriage.”

Nutt says she additionally sees the impression of her years exploring the world on her kids.

“They are bicultural and love to travel the world,” she says.

Nutt additionally nonetheless likes to journey, however says she’s in the glad place of not having wherever left on her bucket checklist. When she left Pan Am, the one vacation spot Nutt nonetheless hoped to go to was China, which was closed to worldwide guests by a lot of her tenure in the air. Nutt fulfilled that dream when she had the alternative to journey to Beijing with Harvard.

When Nutt does fly at present, she marvels at how totally different the traveling expertise is, and the way the position of a flight attendant has developed.

“Back in the day, there was the image of glamor — that played a major role in air transportation back in the ’60s and ’70s and before,” she says. “Nowadays, it appears that it’s basically to get you from point A to point B, and be able to handle an emergency.”

On board service, notes Nutt, can also be markedly modified.

“It’s just very different, and we’re talking a long time ago, times change,” she says.

Today, Nutt’s focus is on collating and sharing the tales of her fellow Black Pan Am flight attendants, who name themselves the “Pan Am Blackbirds.”

“These stories of African American men and women are an integral part of the overall aviation history, but the American aviation history, in particular,” says Nutt.

Nutt is presently placing collectively a podcast, known as “Pan Am Blackbirds” that can shine a lightweight on these tales. She hopes to create an enduring legacy.

“It’s the opportunity to hear our stories, in our words,” she says.

“I felt it was important for our stories to be saved, to be highlighted, to be respected and acknowledged.”

Top {photograph} of Sheila Nutt by Philip Keith for CNN



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