The Vietnam War was raging in 1963 when Hinton “Sam” Shockley finished his service in the U.S. Air Force and returned home to Kansas City.
Having been trained by the military to repair planes, he planned to work as a commercial aircraft mechanic.
Married, with his first child on the way, “my heart was set on TWA,” Shockley says.
But TWA said no. “I couldn’t be a mechanic there,” Shockley recalls, but “they would hire me as a janitor.”
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It was the early ’60s, and employers could, and many did, choose not to hire people just because they were black. Shockley, then 23, wasn’t surprised. It certainly wasn’t his first meeting with racism.
Until 1958, he’d lived in Little Rock, Ark., and attended segregated schools. He’d gone to high school with students who, escorted by the National Guard, broke the color barrier to attend an all-white high school. History books call them the Little Rock Nine.
“As a young kid coming up, I didn’t have any great goals,” Shockley says. He joined the military in 1959, the year after his family moved to Kansas City. “To my great surprise, the military told me they were sending me to aircraft repair school.” With that skill, and knowing TWA had headquarters in Kansas City, Shockley found his career.
“When I think about that civil rights legislation, I know that it was because of it that I was able to fulfill my life’s ambition,” Shockley says.
After being shut out at TWA, Shockley went to work on an assembly line at the area’s Ford plant for two years and two months.
Two years after the 1964 Civil Rights Act was signed into law, Shockley heard from a friend on the assembly line that TWA was hiring.
“On Feb. 28, 1966, I became a full-fledged aircraft mechanic at TWA,” Shockley says. He was one of the first three black mechanics hired there. Making friends at work was hard for a while.
But it changed, says Shockley, who spent almost his entire working life as a structural repair mechanic at TWA.
He’s 73 now and has been retired for 15 years. He lives with his wife, Mary, in Lee’s Summit. The couple have three grown children. All are successful.
“My children had no excuse,” he says. “I was qualified, and the doors were still shut. But today if you qualify, the doors are open.”