Maya Angelou, streetcar conductor: the full story

The revered poet and novelist Maya Angelou (1928-2014) has attracted growing attention for a job she briefly held as a teenager: streetcar conductor in San Francisco during World War II. Much of what gets tossed about in social media is untrue or only partly true. Here, we turn to her own words from her books and interviews to provide the fullest story possible and correct common misperceptions.

Maya Angelou, streetcar conductor: the full story
Maya Angelou, high school student

She was San Francisco’s first Black cable car operator, right?

Wrong. Maya Angelou was a conductor who worked on the back platform of electric streetcars, collecting fares and ensuring passenger safety. She worked for our nonprofit’s namesake, Market Street Railway Company, in its final year before being taken over by the city-owned Municipal Railway (Muni). Here’s how streetcars and cable cars are different.

Streetcars and cable cars both had two-person operating crews then. Conductors at the back, and motormen (on streetcars) and gripmen (on cable cars) piloting the car at the front. The jobs had different requirements. The first female streetcar motormen, dubbed “motorettes”, were hired by both Muni and Market Street Railway during World War II, as men holding those jobs were called to war. (The first Black female cable car “gripman” Fannie Mae Barnes, started gripping in 1998.)

Okay, but she was the first Black streetcar operator in San Francisco then?

She described herself as “the first Negro on the San Francisco streetcars” in her 1970 autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”, but that distinction actually belongs to Audley Cole, who joined Muni in 1941 and endured severe harassment, but persevered.

She later said she had learned she wasn’t the first, but that she was the first Black female streetcar conductor in San Francisco. There’s no way to be sure because all employment records for both Muni and Market Street Railway were discarded long ago, but there’s no doubt that she was one of the first, and the story she tells about getting hired is so compelling in its courage and persistence.

Maya Angelou, streetcar conductor: the full story
Black conductorette (not Angelou) in uniform during World War II

Why did she want to work on the streetcars?

In Caged Bird, she writes of deciding to take a semester off from George Washington High School in the fall of 1943, where she was a year ahead, and get work experience. War plants were out, she wrote, because they “demanded birth certificates, and mine would reveal me to be fifteen, and ineligible for work.” But she knew the streetcar companies were hiring women, “and the thought of sailing up and down the hills of San Francisco in a dark-blue uniform, with a money changer at my belt, caught my fancy.”

How did she get hired? She was only 15 years old at that time.

She writes of seeing an ad in the San Francisco Chronicle placed by Market Street Railway for “motorettes and conductorettes” and went to the company’s main office at 58 Sutter Street to apply. She accurately describes the office of the almost-bankrupt company as “dingy and the decor drab” and asked herself whether she wanted to work for “such a poor-mouth-looking concern”.

But when they snubbed her the first day, she grew determined. Encouraged by her mother, she said, she went back every day for two weeks until they finally let her fill out an application. She started with her correct legal name at the time, Marguerite Johnson, but then “the standard questions reminded me of the necessity for dexterous lying,” starting with her age, which she put down as 19. For experience, she invented what she called the “fable” of having been “companion and driver for Mrs. Annie Henderson (a White Lady) in Stamps, Arkansas.”

She got the job.

In Caged Bird, she wrote, “Mother gave me the money to have my blue serge suit tailored, and I learned to fill out work cards, operate the money changer and punch transfers. The time crowded together and at an End of Days I was swinging on the back of the rackety trolley, smiling sweetly and persuading my charges to “step forward in the car, please”.”

Maya Angelou, streetcar conductor: the full story
Playland-at-the-Beach terminal of both the 5-McAllister and 7-Haight lines, 1941. Waldemar Sievers photo, MSR Archive

Which streetcar line did she work?

Almost certainly more than one during her five-month tenure, likely including the 7-Haight and 5-McAllister lines at a minimum.

In Caged Bird, she writes, “I clanged and cleared my way down Market Street, with its honky-tonk homes for homeless sailors, past the quiet retreat of Golden Gate Park and along closed undwelled-in-looking dwellings of the Sunset District.” That description fits the then-route of the 7-Haight streetcar, which ran out Market Street to Haight Street through what was later called the Haight-Ashbury District, then jogged south on Stanyan Street and then west all the way out Lincoln Way along the southern edge of Golden Gate Park. It finished the route by running north through the westernmost edge of the park to terminate at LaPlaya and Balboa at Playland-at-the-Beach.

Maya Angelou, streetcar conductor: the full story
7-Haight streetcar at Stanyan and Waller Streets, 1940. MSR Archive. A platform of this type streetcar is replicated at our San Francisco Railway Museum.

Forty-three years after publication of Caged Bird, in a 2013 interview with Mark DeAnda of Muni’s parent agency, SFMTA, Angelou said she didn’t remember the specific line she worked, but “I do remember that I took the streetcar from out by the beach. I know that we came down McAllister, then down Market Street to the Ferry Building.” Except for the Ferry Building terminal, that describes the 5-line, which ran (and as a trolley bus, still runs) along the northern edge of Golden Gate Park on Fulton Street, through the Richmond District, to share a terminal at Playland with the 7-line. But the 5’s eastern terminal in 1943 was, like the 7-line’s, East Bay Terminal at First and Mission, not the Ferry Building as she remembered in the 2013 SFMTA interview.

Maya Angelou, streetcar conductor: the full story
5-McAllister streetcar at City Hall, 1941. MSR Archive. Our nonprofit recommends naming the last surviving streetcar of this type for Maya Angelou.

The 7-line shared a carbarn with the 17-line, which duplicated the 7’s route until 20th Avenue, where it turned south, traversing the Sunset District to Stern Grove. But unlike the 7, which terminated at East Bay Terminal, the 17 went all the way to the Ferry Building. Similarly, though the 5-line terminated at East Bay Terminal, the 21-Hayes, with which it shared McAllister Division carbarn, ran all the way to the Ferry. So, when Angelou writes about going all the way to the Ferry Building, she may be referring to trips worked on lines like the 17 and 21.

Another line that ran from the Ferry Building to the Beach (45th Avenue and Geary Blvd.) was the 1-Sutter-California line. Angelou notes in several remembrances that her mother drove her out to “the streetcar barn … out near the beach” to start her pre-dawn split shift, then followed her in the family automobile while she conducted her first trip downtown, to provide a measure of safety and reassurance for her daughter. The 1-line was housed at Sutro Division at 32nd Avenue and Clement Street and was the closest carbarn to the beach.

Maya Angelou, streetcar conductor: the full story
The “Boneyard” where some streetcar runs originated that Maya Angelou might have worked. St. Anne’s of the Sunset Catholic Church in the background. MSR Archive

The next-closest carbarn to the beach was the “Boneyard”, an open-air city block of retired and derelict streetcars at Lincoln Way and 14th Avenue, where some runs originated for the 7 and 17 lines, as well as the 6-Masonic line, which went all the way to the Ferry Building.

Thus, in all likelihood she worked both the 5 and 7 lines, and probably others that reached the Ferry Building in 1943. This mixture of assignments would have been normal for a new-hire.

Retired Muni streetcar operator and Market Street Railway member Larry Bernard says when he joined Muni in 1979, work rules were little changed from decades before. New hires who finished training were assigned to the “extra board” until the next signup, picking up whatever run (streetcar trip) the dispatcher needed filled.

“Since her tenure was only five months, it is unlikely she ever was able to stay on one line for very long,” Bernard writes.  “Also, she could have transferred between barns, or been assigned ‘as needed, for the duration,’ as it were.  An experience that featured a variety of lines would result in a variety of memories, especially so many years after the fact.”

What types of streetcars did she work on?

The 6, 7, and 17 lines were all served at that time by streetcars numbered from 101-180, bought new in 1911 from the Jewett Car Company of Ohio. None of these 80 cars survives, but dedicated volunteers from our nonprofit have created an exact replica of an end platform of this car type, including the conductor station where Angelou would have stood. It’s a central display in our free museum across from the Ferry Building.

The 5 and 21 lines used somewhat newer streetcars built largely in the 1920s by workers at the main shops of Market Street Railway. Only one of the 250 streetcars of this type survives. Our nonprofit rescued the body from the Mother Lode town of Columbia in 1984, where it had been serving as part of a jewelry store. Muni invested more than $300,000 in rebuilding the body, but the project then stalled. We are working to get the restoration completed soon, naming the car in honor of Maya Angelou, both for her own achievement and those of other women and people of color who broke diversity barriers in San Francisco transit.

Maya Angelou, streetcar conductor: the full story
This group photo of operators at Sutro Division in 1947 shows the growth in employment of Blacks and women as streetcar operators just three years after Maya Angelou’s pioneering role. SFMTA Archive

What must it have been like to be in her pioneering role?

Larry Bernard writes, “What I find truly remarkable is her determination, at the age of fifteen (!) to take on a job held almost exclusively by white males, at a time when her appearance on the rear platform of a streetcar, in uniform, requesting fares, could perhaps cause very unpleasant reactions.”

Bernard recalls that years ago, he lived next door to the son of a former Muni streetcar motorman. Bernard’s neighbor told him of the father coming home from work one day during the War, “enraged because they had put a “[N-word] wench on his car as a conductor”. Bernard notes that racists and sexists like that motorman surely existed on the Market Street Railway then too, “and that some of Ms. Angelou’s experience must have been trying, to say the least.  Of course, she was an exceptional woman, and, with her indomitable spirit,  found much to love about the job.  She is truly an inspiration to us all!”

Indeed, in her writings, Angelou focuses on the positives of her five-months on the streetcars. In an interview with Oprah Winfrey, she said after she went back to high school, her mother asked her what she had learned about herself from her experience with the streetcar job. Angelou says she told her mother she didn’t know, and her mother replied, “You learned that you are very strong. with determination and dedication. You can go anywhere in the world.”

And she did.

Our nonprofit depends on donations and memberships to be able to bring stories like this to light, and to celebrate the contributions to historic transit of people like Maya Angelou with meaningful public recognition. Please consider joining us our donating. Thanks.

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Celebrating F-line enablers this Pride Month

There would be no F-line today without the concerted effort of a group of advocates and enablers in the early 1980s. Many of them were openly gay. No better time to celebrate their achievements than Pride Month.

That list simply has to start with Maurice Klebolt, a force of nature. Klebolt, who came to San Francisco from Chicago, ran a one-man travel agency, served as a part-time Muni operator, and cultivated elected officials on a single issue: operating historic streetcars on Market Street after regular streetcar service on the J, K, L, M, and N lines went underground with the opening of the Muni Metro Subway in the early 1980s. Others talked about it and began to plan for it, but Klebolt believed in actually DOING something instead. And did he ever. This story from the San Francisco Chronicle captures his activism perfectly.

Celebrating F-line enablers this Pride Month
Maurice Klebolt (left) with the Hamburg streetcar he brought to San Francisco, flanked by then-Muni General Manager Harold Geissenheimer in about 1984. MSR Archive

Klebolt and then-downtown business executive Rick Laubscher, who mobilized that community through the Chamber of Commerce, teamed up in something of a “Mr. Outside, Mr. Inside” pairing to win acceptance of a proof of concept in the form of a summer “Historic Trolley Festival” in 1983, which was renewed for a total of five seasons and built public support for the permanent F-line in 1995 and its extension to Fisherman’s Wharf in 2000.

Klebolt brought numerous international vintage streetcars to San Francisco for Muni’s fleet, and led the charge to grow the new, seven-member nonprofit known as Market Street Railway into a vibrant membership organization by personally shaking down – er, soliciting – everyone he know (and many he didn’t) for what were then $10 memberships. that remains in Muni’s fleet (and remains in need of restoration). Maury’s untimely death in 1988 at just 58 left a real void, but the success of the Trolley Festivals had put a permanent F-line squarely on City Hall’s agenda. Read our tribute to him here, with more hard-to-believe (but true) tales, including his personal version of Cold War-era glasnost.

Celebrating F-line enablers this Pride Month
“Streetcar Named Desire for Peace”, Moscow/Orel Car 106, brought to San Francisco by Maurice Klebolt, participated in a 1992 parade honoring San Francisco’s centennial of streetcars. MSR Archive

While Klebolt may have been the most visible openly gay man associated with the creation of the F-line, several others played very significant roles. The solid and enduring support of then-Mayor Dianne Feinstein was essential to the Trolley Festivals and permanent F-line, but the implementation of her wishes was carried out by her top transportation staff member, Alan Lubliner. Alan’s attention to detail and follow-through kept the project progressing, even when some inside Muni and other city agencies didn’t see the urgency of action. Alan went on to a very successful career in New York with the transportation consulting firm Parsons-Brinkerhoff (now WSP).

The city’s nonprofit partner in facilitating the first two Trolley Festivals was the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce (Market Street Railway took on that role starting in the third year). Lee Knight led the internal Chamber team that made dozens of arrangements on a faster schedule than the City’s procedures would allow. Lee later joined Muni’s then-parent, the city’s Public Utilities Commission as planning manager, before his life was tragically cut short by AIDS.

Once in operation, the spirit of the Trolley Festival was definitively captured by the senior motorman operating the vintage streetcars, Jack Smith, the son of one of San Francisco’s first African-American streetcar operators. Jack literally learned the craft of piloting streetcars at his father’s knee. His encyclopedic knowledge of San Francisco transit history and his unquestioned expertise in streetcar operation was looked up to by the other operators and by management as well. After his retirement from Muni, he served on Market Street Railway’s board of directors with distinction for several years, and was a long-time volunteer on restoration activities of our organization, focused on original San Francisco streetcars. Here’s how we remembered him after his unexpected passing in 2004, at age 72.

Celebrating F-line enablers this Pride Month
Motorman extraordinaire Jack Smith (left), who could operate any streetcar (or cable car), including the complicated Russian Tram 106, at first sight, receives a mock “tribute” from Maurice Klebolt, who brought the tram from Russia, at 17th and Castro in 1987. MSR Archive

There were many other members of the LGBTQ community that played positive roles in the Trolley Festival, particularly residents and merchants the Castro’s District, whose embrace of the vintage streetcars were a significant boost to their success. The Festival streetcars had to go where tracks already were, making Castro Street the logical terminal. Several gay business groups came together to issue a guide to introduce streetcar riders to neighborhood businesses. A booster committee was formed, led by a gay man named Robert Hunter, who asked the Chamber if they could create their own poster. Of course, came the reply. We have recently been offered a mint-condition copy of this artifact and offer this rough photograph we’ve been sent here.

Celebrating F-line enablers this Pride Month

And speaking of posters, we celebrate John Wullbrandt, then a young San Francisco artist who had done whimsical posters of a PCC and a cable car when we approached him to create posters for the first two Trolley Festivals. John raised the money from two other gay men, Bob Campbell and Joe Caplett, and we gained wonderful promotional tools. John is now a renowned fine artist based near Santa Barbara. We offer John’s 1984 poster of famous San Franciscans riding the Boat Tram (shown below) in our online store and at our museum store. The Chamber of Commerce focused on patronizing LGBTQ businesses for the promotional services needed for the Trolley Festivals, including purchasing signage from a small business on Brady Street, Budget Signs, owned by a young gay man named Mark Leno, who went on to a very successful political career in San Francisco and Sacramento.

Celebrating F-line enablers this Pride Month

Beyond the openly LGBTQ people who helped enable the F-line to become reality, there were other prominent people involved who chose not to reveal their sexual orientation during their lifetimes, and we honor that choice. But their contributions are certainly remembered and appreciated. (Anytime one attempts recognizing people who contributed to a team effort, there is always the risk of missing someone. We apologize if so.)

The historic streetcars have always been wildly popular in the Castro District, from the first article we remember being written about them in a local gay publication (with the headline “Zing Went the Strings of My Heart” from Judy Garland’s ‘Trolley Song’) to loud complaints from merchants and residents when F-line service was threatened with extended interruptions. On several occasions, vintage streetcars have taken pride of place in the annual Pride Parade, something we hope will happen again in the future.

Celebrating F-line enablers this Pride Month
During the Trolley Festival’s first year, 1983, both the Blackpool Boat Tram and Muni’s very first streetcar, Car 1, participated in the Pride Parade. MSR Archive

On a national and international level, many gay men took leadership roles in rescuing streetcars from the scrap heap starting after World War II, and in creating museums to operate them. They did this in an era when coming out was to risk severe professional and personal consequences, so they often did not reveal their preferences. But you can see their legacy in museums all over the world. Our nonprofit has likewise benefited by the work of openly gay folks who have served on our board, among them Maury, Jack, Steve Ferrario, and our longtime board member and secretary, Art Curtis, who worked his way up from PCC operator to Chief Inspector at Muni.

Today of course, Muni’s parent, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) is headed by a gay man, Jeff Tumlin, a San Franciscan for 30 years and frequent F-line rider. Its board of directors currently includes out small business leader Manny Yekutiel and has had other prominent LGBTQ leaders in the recent past, including former State Senator and State Democratic Party Chair Art Torres, and long-time board Chair Tom Nolan, who was previously a San Mateo County Supervisor. Indeed, at all levels, from front line workers to leadership to governance, the LGBTQ community is extensively represented at SFMTA.

Happy Pride Month!

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Pedal to the metal: “Finding room to run”

We all know that old saying, “They don’t make them like THAT anymore”. With the late Art Curtis, that’s the truth. In his 37-year career with Muni, Art solved all kinds of operational problems as Chief Inspector, but as a “young buck” (his term) operator, he created his share of mischief, too. We’ll be sharing a couple of stories here told by Art himself. This one comes from a 2009 issue of our member magazine, Inside Track. (Join us to get this quarterly magazine with its stories of San Francisco transit history as an exclusive member benefit.)

by Art Curtis     

Pedal to the metal:
Art Curtis on his first day as a Muni motorman, 1961, at what turned out to be his favorite terminal, City College on the K-Ingleside line. MSR Archive

 Stand on Market Street today and watch the streetcars go by.  You’ll notice they pretty much stay in the same order all day.  You might see the Boston PCC, then the yellow Milan tram, then the Harvey Milk car (Muni 1051).  Back when I was operating streetcars on Market in the 1960s though, it was a much different story.

Pedal to the metal:
Market Street, 1967. Wonder whether the motorman of J-line PCC 1031 was Art’s nemisis, “Shaky Jake” Grabstein? MSR Archive

They were all streamliner PCCs then, of course, all painted green and cream, so that casual onlookers couldn’t tell if the order of the cars changed.  But the order of the cars made a big difference to many of us operators – the difference between a good day and a bad day.

Here’s why.  Today, it’s just the F-line on Market, but back then all five streetcar lines, the J, K, L, M, and N, shared those Market Street tracks.  Those of us who were “runners” – who liked to take advantage of the PCCs fast acceleration and rapid braking to keep to our schedule – did our best to be sure we had room to run.

Let me give you an example.  I once worked a run [a day’s worth of trips] named 27-K, which meant it was run number 27 primarily routed on the K-Ingleside line.  I picked up the car from its previous operator every day at 4:47 p.m. at the West Portal of the old Twin Peaks Tunnel. Usually, though, the operator was six to eight minutes late.  As a runner that just heightened my enjoyment of the day’s work. 

Pedal to the metal:
One of Art’s favored “Baby Ten” PCCs rolling out Ocean Avenue at Cedro in Ingleside Terraces, bound for City College. If Art Curtis were the motorman, he’d be hustling to make up time. Mike Sheridan photo, MSR Archive

 You see, that run was scheduled to start its next trip, from the old Phelan Loop at City College, at 5:06 p.m., less than 20 minutes after I was scheduled to get the car at West Portal.  It was a daily, but totally rewarding challenge to get the heavy load of students at that hour on board at the terminal and make it back to West Portal within the bare ten minutes allowed by the schedule (laughably short compared to today’s schedules).

Pedal to the metal:
PCC 1027 at the K-line’s City College terminal. The car will navigate a very tight loop to get back to Ocean Avenue. Art would have the wheels squealing to beat his slow L-line compatriot, Joe Shook, to West Portal. MSR Archive

 Achieving that reward was especially important during one particular sign-up, because if I got to West Portal late, my follower on the L-line would cut me out, get ahead of me through the tunnel and down Market.  That motorman was the infamously slow Joe Shook, who was already a couple of minutes late when he reached West Portal.  I would often make a “Hollywood Stop” at West Portal & Ulloa, rolling through the inbound point-on switch ringing my gong and waving at Joe to stop and let me go ahead of him.

If I got in place ahead of Joe, I still had to hot foot it through the Twin Peaks Tunnel and down to Church Street on Market to make sure I got in place ahead of my J-line follower, “Shaky Jake” Grabstein, who always liked to run a couple of minutes ahead of schedule.  The final challenge on this first trip on 27-K was to get up the hill to Duboce and make sure I got in place ahead of my “N” follower, whose name I can’t remember – but I do remember that just like the other two, he was so, so slow!!  If I could get ahead of them, I could make up any lost time.  Nothing better for a runner like me to start down the hill from Duboce and see my leader somewhere down around Fourth or Third Street. Then I could really move!! It made no difference if we had a “swinging load” of passengers or not – just as long as we could move!

Pedal to the metal:
Market Street east of Duboce, with the double-deck Central Freeway looming over Octavia Street. Despite the freeway, Art had a clear view inbound well past Van Ness. MSR Archive

But if any of these guys got in front of me, I knew that when I finally got back to West Portal outbound, I’d be really late. That would force the inspector, Bill Veach (whom I had “helped” at West Portal as a young railfan before I was hired), to set up a car trade for me. I usually inherited a “good” car (which to me meant either a double-ended “Torpedo” or a “Baby Ten,” not an ex-St. Louis 1100) when I began my run. But if I was late on the first return trip from East Bay Terminal, I’d be stuck for the rest of the night with whatever car Bill could get another motorman to trade at West Portal. Though he did always try to get me a Baby Ten or a Torpedo if he could, it all depended on which motormen were willing to make the car trades and pull-in late.  If he couldn’t make a trade, I told him to just let me run and I’ll get back on time!

Pedal to the metal:
Inspector Bill Veach, right, checks on PCC 1145 at West Portal. If Art were in that 1100, he’d be begging Veach for a trade for a Baby Ten or Torpedo. By the way, note the extra black fleet number over the front door. That was Art’s idea, as an inspector, to make it easier to pick out individual cars during BART construction. Only a few cars ever got this treatment, though. MSR Archive

This may sound trivial to some readers today, but let me tell you, having a good car to run, and room to run it, made all the difference between a frustrating day at work and a satisfying one – and of course it made things better for passengers, too, since I knew how to keep my car on schedule if no one got in front of me to slow me down!!

Pedal to the metal:
PCC 1025 at East Bay Terminal, completing another run, a bit before Art’s time at Muni (1955). Note the W-P neon sign on Mission Street, the headquarters of Western Pacific Railroad. The feather promotes their “Feather River Route” through the Sierra Nevada. Phillip Scherer photo, MSR Archive

Art Curtis’ family has generously asked that donations in his memory can be made to Market Street Railway. If you’re so inclined, click here, and put Art’s name in the honoree box near the bottom of the donation page. We’ll use those donations for something special to honor him.

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