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Cocoa: One of the Ten Pioneers
On the last day of summer, September 21st, 2013, Joyce (Cocoa) Henderson was born back into spirit due to illness. She passed in her home in Las Vegas, Nevada, with family by her side.
For the last couple of weeks, both active and retired United employees have been electronically sharing their grief with stories about Cocoa. These stories express how Cocoa Henderson had touched their lives, even if it was just a brief encounter
When I graduated from Stew School in September of 1964, there were a few – very few – African American stewardesses. In those days, the commonly-used term for African Americans was Negro. For example, on June 26, 1965, The Chicago Defender ran an article entitled, “Ten Negro Stewardesses Fly for United.” Cocoa was one of these ten. She had graduated just months before me. Further research leads me to believe that Cocoa was the third woman of color hired by United.
Cocoa’s hiring was helped along because Patricia Banks had filed a discrimination lawsuit against Mohawk, TWA and Capital Airlines in 1956 -- a case that took 4 years to settle in the New York courts. She won her case, and in 1960, Capital Airlines hired Patricia Banks. (In 1961, Capital merged with United.)
Years ago at the Los Angeles International Airport, I was in United’s inflight offices. Those were the days we were the largest U.S. domestic airline, and our departure gates were in the 70’s and 80’s. Our inflight offices were located above gates 74-76 in the rotunda area. It was morning, and I was returning to Chicago O’Hare where I was based. Those were also the days when we bragged about how long we had been flying and used months as our reference. For example, I think at the time I would have had 14 or 15 months seniority.
I remember that morning was the first time I saw Cocoa in person. It would have been in the latter months of 1965, and she was in our “Blue Vision” winter uniform wearing her winter coat and her long blue leather gloves. I was taken aback by her unique beauty. It almost seemed like there was a spotlight on her. I was awestruck, and I know I was not the only one that felt that way.
Near the end of my career, I was fortunate to fly a schedule to Sydney, Australia, with Cocoa and her long time best friend and flying partner, Lin. During those trips, I was captivated by her story telling. I love the fact that she had tried out for the Snow White character at Disneyland and was surprised when she did not get the part. (I find it interesting that decades later, Disney featured a princess of color in the movie, The Princess and the Frog.) I wish I had had more opportunity to fly with both Cocoa and Lin and hope my vision of Cocoa at least comes close to her true character and does her justice.
She was born in the first half of the 1940's in a society that had many lessons to learn. She had been blessed with other attributes besides her outer beauty. She was intelligent, kind, open hearted and had a great sense of humor. She did not take herself too seriously, which was proven in later years when she dressed up as a clown at many children’s parties as their entertainment (a second job).
In the early years of flying, she experienced social issues that fair skinned stewardesses did not encounter. The pioneer stewardesses of color were given special lines of flying to keep them safe. These lines included no Southern layovers. During a weather problem that forced an unscheduled landing in Memphis, Tennessee, Cocoa had been refused service at the airport terminal cafe, even though she was accompanied by her two white pilots. The pilots and Cocoa returned to the plane, and they had their food delivered there. During the 6-day Watts riots in Los Angeles in August of 1965, Cocoa was told by the company crew desk to stay home for her own safety. One of Cocoa’s stories told to a male flight attendant concerned a passenger in the mid-60’s who refused to be served by her. She quietly left the area while another stewardess served the jerk (my word, not hers). She was a class act. She rose above the bigotry as many of our airplanes rose above stormy clouds.
To be able to detail Cocoa’s 40-year flying career is not possible, but just touching the surface helps to understand a fraction of the challenges the Negro stewardesses (as they were called in Ebony Magazine) had to endure in our industry at the time. Just think of the strength of their character and the cruel challenges they endured, and in doing so, they helped shift our society into a better place in terms of human dignity and understanding. But we still have a long way to go
Cocoa was an incredible force who helped create a great change within the airline industry. She was a true pioneer, and she flew the longest – by at least a decade – of any of the original 10 African-American stewardesses hired in the early 1960’s.
On September 21st, 2013, she was called home – to her original home—the place we call heaven. Her work was done here. She had accomplished more than she had realized. She had learned many lessons on this planet called earth. She also set an example for many others she touched along the way, teaching them how to elevate above hardship and mistreatment.
We, the ones who were fortunate enough to have met Cocoa Henderson and especially those that knew her well will miss her inner and outer beauty. She made us feel good just being around her because her energy was light hearted and she carried great wisdom within, which she gladly shared with others.
Goodbye, dear Cocoa. We know you had a beautiful trip home. We will not forget you!