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Cocoa: One of the Ten Pioneers

Updated on October 9, 2013
Joyce (Cocoa) Henderson
Joyce (Cocoa) Henderson

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!


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      Trudy Wong 14 months ago

      I just celebrated the 50 anniversary of my graduation from "stew school." I remember when I was first meeting other members of my class when one said oh, you are the "token." When I inquired what that meant she said, they are trying to have one Jew and one Negro in each class! As it turns out, I was one of two Jews in that class, however the other two "tokens" did not complete stew school.... which made me very sad.... as the remaining "token." Cocoa was one of several class acts...working for United that I have had the joy of working with. They were/are treasured friends. I guess we could say we've come "a long way," but we have "miles to go." Thanks Barbara for writing, sharing and honoring the memory of Cocoa!

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      GG Baba 2 years ago from Southern California

      Thanks Joy for commenting! We as a group are so connected I wonder what Cocoa is up to now? I'm sure is watching over us and will be at the reunion in Oct.

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      Joy Arnswald 2 years ago

      Nothing but fond memories of Cocoa. I knew her at Compton Jr. College and reunited with her again on UAL. She was at my retirement party in Sydney. Cocoa was a beautiful, elegant lady.

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      GG Baba 4 years ago from Southern California

      Dear Aidsand, it makes my heart smile that Cocca's beautiful face and part of who she was and is. is out there on the internet. I so enjoyed reading your words and giving her the trubute that she so remarkably deserved, She was a beauty for sure.

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      Aidsand F. Wright-Riggins 4 years ago

      I knew Joyce "Cocoa" Henderson as the little brother to my big sister, Margaret, who was Joyce's best friend as they grew up together in Compton, CA in the early and mid 60's. Six years younger than her, I had a big time crush on Joyce. She was a 12 year old boy's fantasy! Our families were close. All of Compton was so very proud of her helping to break the flight attendant barrier. I now fly 50% of my work life. Instinctively, I almost always look into the faces of flight attendants looking for my precious beautiful, ground breaking and wonderful Joyce, who I have not seen for over 35 years. Yesterday, I saw a flight attendant who reminded me of her. I "Goggled" Joyce today to discover that she passed on recently. While I am saddened, I smile knowing that she is one of the foundational reasons why I am able to fly. Thank you Joyce! Thank you Henderson family. Thank you Compton. -- Aidsand Jr.

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      GG Baba 4 years ago from Southern California

      I was just at a flight attendant reunion and many people talked about that tribute because it was so Cocoa and what a wonderful thing for me to be able to write about her. Thanks for you nice comment

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      Pat Graham 4 years ago

      It's difficult to type a thank you with tears in my eyes. Beautiful tribute to a beautiful flying partner. Thanks Barbara.

    • GG Baba profile image

      GG Baba 4 years ago from Southern California

      In a time where the world is so driven by money and power which controls politics it's a beautiful thing to see a spirit like Cocos.

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      JLRoehr 4 years ago

      A beautiful and poignant piece of writing Barbara.

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      Ronald E Franklin 4 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      What a great tribute. I had never really thought about this subject before. Your account has caused me to pause and think about what it must have been like for Cocoa and her compatriots, and how they handled difficult and potentially explosive situations with such class that most of us never knew about them. I really appreciate this hub.

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      Carolyn 4 years ago

      Another great story and a wonderful salute to Cocoa

    • pramodgokhale profile image

      pramodgokhale 4 years ago from Pune( India)

      Article is really a story of depressed people and their struggle against racial bias and discrimination.

      She offered best service as a stewardess , so she can claim as a pioneer

      It will take long time to eliminate apartheid and inequality still persists in society.

      I hope USA will again prove first to bring social changes and top cosmopolitan nation or" melting pot "

      pramod gokhale