On Thanksgiving morning 1955, Fay Wilson and Rubye Wiggins landed at Moisant International Airport in New Orleans. The two women, traveling from Los Angeles, were headed to an executive board meeting of the Chi Eta Phi Sorority, a professional organization for black nurses. The New Orleans stop was just a brief layover on the way to the meeting site in Tuskegee. As they waited for their connecting flights, Wilson and Wiggins, along with two other officers in the organization, decided to head to the airport’s Dobbs House dining room for breakfast.
The four women were met at the dining room entrance by the white cashier. “[She] greeted us asking, ‘How many are in your party?’ ” Wilson told a reporter at the Atlanta Daily World. “Then she proceeded across the dining room to the opposite corner and began to adjust a wooden screen about 7 or 8 feet high, which seemed to serve the purpose of screening the table. She directed us behind this screen.” As they were the only African-American patrons in the restaurant at the time, the women concluded they were asked to sit behind the screen in order to make them invisible to the white patrons in the restaurant. “We refused these services,” said Wilson, “and left the dining room.”
This account of racial discrimination is just one outlined by historian Anke Ortlepp in Jim Crow Terminals: The Desegregation of American Airports (University of Georgia Press, 2017). While stories of racial discrimination experienced by railway and bus passengers will be familiar to most readers, perhaps less well known are tales about commercial air travel. Orlepp chose to focus her study on the airline industry, in part, because of the odd dichotomy passengers experienced: While Southern airport terminals were typically segregated, the aircraft cabin itself was integrated, as airline travel was a federally regulated business.
The systematic segregation of airport space began in the late 1940s, writes Ortlepp. Because the administration of airports was a responsibility of local municipal authorities rather than the federal government, each city was able to define its own policies. At the same time, however, laws established by the Civil Aeronautics Act of 1938 prohibited discrimination of airline passengers on the basis of their race. In 1953, the NAACP began surveying airport space in an effort to document the spread of segregated facilities. In 1955, writes Ortlepp, Congressman Charles C. Diggs, Jr., the newly elected Democratic representative from Detroit, conducted a second survey, interviewing more than 100 airport managers in 13 states. The survey results were surprising: It wasn’t just restaurants, bathrooms, and drinking fountains that were segregated. Ground transportation was as well: While white passengers could easily catch a cab in front of the airport, black-owned taxis and limousine companies were not allowed to wait for fares, and were available only on demand, causing significant transportation delays.
Ortlepp’s exceptional book traces not just the emergence of systematic segregation within airports, but also the process of desegregation. Integration was achieved only because airports depended upon the money they received through the Federal-aid Airport Program (FAAP), funds earmarked for the construction of new airports. To receive a grant, applicants had to agree to the Civil Aeronautics Administration’s anti-segregation regulations: Funds would be denied for the construction of airport facilities which were to be used on a racially segregated basis. The rule would apply to new construction as well as remodeling and repair of existing facilities; those cities that violated the conditions were subject to lawsuit.
“The United States v. City of Montgomery turned out to be the leading case in the Department of Justice’s efforts to tackle airport segregation,” writes Ortlepp. In 1962, Dannelly Field Airport in Montgomery, Alabama, one of the last segregated airports, was ordered to comply with the federal court order guaranteeing African-American passengers equal access. In reaction to the desegregation ruling, writes Ortlepp, “defense attorney Calvin Whitesell announced that rather than accept the integration of the airport terminal’s service facilities, the city would close and destroy them. At the same time that segregation signs were to come down, concrete would be poured down all the toilets; the water supply to the sinks and drinking fountain would be cut off; seats would be taken out of the waiting areas; and last but not least, if black patrons tried to use the Sky Ranch restaurant it would close, too. The city’s plan was brought to a halt by Montgomery’s business community, whose efforts had led to the construction of the new airport terminal in the first place.”
The last U.S. airport to integrate was in Shreveport, Louisiana. On July 10, 1963, after a court order, the signs indicating “white” and “colored” areas were finally removed.