Eleanor Joyce Toliver-Williams - the first African-American woman to certify as an air traffic controller

Black LIves Heroes

The next time you are flying in a jet, take a moment to think about the Air Traffic Controllers on the ground who guide aircraft safely to their destinations. Eleanor Joyce Toliver-Williams was one such unsung hero.

In 1968, Eleanor began her career at Federal Aviation Administration as a cleaner. She then worked for the flight standards and personnel offices, where she helped process the paperwork to hire new air traffic controllers. Seeing an opportunity for more exciting work and higher pay, she applied for one of the positions. Williams later said she wanted a higher paying position because "the babysitter was costing an arm and a leg."

She completed the controller entrance exam and began training at the Anchorage Flight Service Station in 1968. She received certification in 1971. In 1976, she helped establish an Anchorage chapter of the National Federation of Business and Professional Women. Not until 1980 did she find out she was the first black female air traffic controller.

Her legacy did not stop there; this was merely a stepping-stone. She went on to become the first African-American woman to head up a significant en-route facility in 1994, at the Cleveland ARTCC in Oberlin, Ohio, at the time, the nation's second-busiest en-route air traffic control facility. She was inducted into the Black Aviation Hall of Fame in 2001, along with such greats as C. Alfred Anderson and several other Tuskegee Airmen.

You cannot be stopped, if you are willing to keep trying.

In 1995, Congress saluted her during Black History Month. Representative Louis Stokes said, in part, that she was "not only a role model to colleagues but also the employees she supervises . . . her passion for excellence and ability to reach any goal inspires those around her to strive for the stars." He continued, "Eleanor is someone of whom the African-American community, women, and indeed Americans everywhere should be proud."

Before retiring in 1997 with 32 years of federal service, Williams held an executive management position for the regional administrator of the Great Lakes Region. Looking back on her distinguished career, Williams told ATO News in 2007, "It was a good career and total life change for me."

Eleanor died on April 22, 2011, at the age of 73. During her life, she inspired many to reach for their goals. She became one of FAA's goodwill ambassadors, teaching young women and men about being an air traffic controller. 

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    She was my grandmother who raised me and my sister Talisha Williams. She was a great role model with a beautiful spirit and talking about her journey always made her eyes light up.

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