American Airlines Southwest Elevator In-Flight Talk
JacqueRae Hill wasn’t looking for attention. Far from there.
She had no idea that a 10-minute conversation with a complete stranger at work would allow her to be hailed as a change agent for one of the largest companies in the country.
Hill has been beaten, angry and frustrated by the murder of George Floyd last week by former Minneapolis police officers and moved by the protests and uprisings that have engulfed cities across the country since videos of the incident have been revealed.
She just wanted to have a conversation about the breed with someone who she thought had a listening ear and an open mind.
Hill, an African-American woman who lives in Duncanville, has worked as a flight attendant for Southwest Airlines for the past 14 years.
She was at work last Friday, mentally exhausted and in turmoil, preparing for her flight from Love Field to Panama City, Fla., When she noticed a Caucasian passenger was sagging in row 25 and put on best-selling book on racism, “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for Whites to Talk About Racism,” by Robin DiAngelo in the seatback pocket.
Frustration with the racial unrest raging in the country and an intrigue about the passenger with the book led her to sit in an aisle seat next to the man and strike up a conversation that resulted in tears, hugs and maybe a racial reconciliation plan.
Unbeknownst to Hill, the man was not just any passenger. He was Doug Parker CEO of Fort Worth-based American Airlines, which was apparently divinely forced to book a flight on its Dallas-based rival Southwest as all American to Florida seats were sold out.
Parker was so moved by his interaction with Hill that he emailed other American Airlines executives describing him “as an absolute gift to me” and stressed the importance of listening.
“These are tough times,” Parker said in the email, which has since been made public. “Our people are suffering. I’m not sure of all the answers, but I know that involves talking to each other. And listening. And it takes courage and leadership to start the conversation and stand up for what’s right. JacqueRae taught me all that. ”
Hill shared the encounter on her Facebook page on Saturday, but Parker’s email and resulting media inquiries gave her more attention than she received as a former basketball star at Duncanville High School and four-year letterer at Tarleton State University in Stephenville.
“It’s so upsetting,” Hill said Monday night from Philadelphia as he was in the middle of another long work trip that started on Saturday and won’t end until Thursday. “It makes me cry every day. I was an emotional wreck. It was crazy, but it was awesome.
Perhaps her biggest impact was on American Airlines, as she received messages from over 100 employees saying her conversation with Parker changed company morale. Oddly enough, Hill’s mother works for American Airlines in Washington, DC, and she too has received emails from countless colleagues saying the same thing.
“It’s been so,” Hill said. “I thought I had a little influence on the people I knew. But not on this scale.
Hill is always a little sheepish about the attention because it wasn’t his intention. She says people call her brave to talk to Parker. Hill said she didn’t know who he was. She just wanted to talk and she never hesitated to talk to people.
“People think you have to be brave to have these conversations,” Hill said. “You just have to open your mouth. He gets a lot of attention because of who he is. But I didn’t know. I just thought he was open to talking because he had the book.
Parker had started reading the book on the recommendation of an African-American friend and American Airlines board member, he said in the email. “The horrific and senseless death of George Floyd reminded me that there are bigger problems in our world than coronavirus, so I packed the book for the trip.
And he had no idea what was to come next when Hill sat down next to him and asked about the book.
“My ego assumes again that she recognized me, mask and everything, and wants to know why I’m flying southwest,” Parker said in his note. “But no, she has no idea who I am. It’s a young black woman and she points to the book in my seat pocket and asks, “How do you like this book?” “I say it’s fantastic and I show him defensively that I’m a little over the halfway point. She said, ‘It’s on my reading list and I saw you bring it on board and I just wanted to talk to you.’
Hill wasn’t even really moved when she sat down.
But after she asked Parker about the book and he replied that many of the race issues in the country were white people ‘s fault, she “started playing.”
Parker provided a shoulder to cry on and a hug.
“I felt totally inadequate but I knew it was a special time,” Parker continued in the long email. “The best I could do was tell him that the book is about how horrible white people are at talking about racism, and what we need are real conversations. She has accepted. I told her I was trying to learn and through tears and a mask she said, “Me too.”
“We talked for a good ten minutes and it was an absolute gift to me.”
Parker then told Hill who he was, which resulted in more tears from Hill telling him his mother worked for American Airlines.
He quickly exchanged emails with his mother explaining how special Hill was and the impression she had left on him.
“Reading a book is one thing – spending time with a kind, strong young black woman who is suffering and trying to learn from others is another,” Parker said in the email.
Parker wrote Hill a note before disembarking. He said his visit was a gift from God and an inspiration.
“I am sad that we, as a society, have moved so slowly on an issue that clearly has good versus evil,” Parker continued. “The problem is that we don’t talk about it enough. Thanks for talking to me and sharing your feelings. It took courage.
Between thefts and media inquiries, the brave Hill continued her conversations about race with friends and strangers. And have similar impacts.
On Sunday, Hill said a Facebook comment immediately turned into a phone call and an hour-long conversation with a man she didn’t know. “He was saying ‘All lives matter’ and at the end of the call he was explaining to someone else why ‘Black lives matter’.”
That guy was Scott Nau from Forney who acknowledged the conversation on his Facebook page. He called it “beautiful and enlightening” and “thanked God” for making a new friend.
All because Hill has become an agent of change for a business and, perhaps, even for a divided country.
This story was originally published June 2, 2020 11:37 am.