Driving Equality

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African-American employment and leadership has become a proud Muni tradition. San Francisco Municipal Railway photos.

As part of our mission, Market Street Railway creates displays on-board the historic streetcars to educate San Franciscans and visitors on interesting aspects of the city’s transit history. We call it the Museums in Motion project. This is an online version of one of those displays.

H. Welton Flynn

H. Welton Flynn, longest serving city commissioner in San Francisco history.

San Francisco didn’t always have a reputation for openness and inclusion. The city’s past has been marred by discrimination in many forms. For example, before World War II, all but a small number of city employees were white.

African-Americans were especially unwelcome in the closed circle of city employment. But the shortage of civilian workers during the war opened doors that had been locked tight. And the city department that provided the most opportunity to African-Americans was Muni.

Along with its private competitor, the Market Street Railway Co., Muni hired scores of African-Americans, many recently arrived from the South, as streetcar conductors and motormen.

Fannie

Fannie Mae Barnes, the first-ever cable car gripwoman, 1998. Photo: Lionel Da Silva, SFMTA.

Some, including an aspiring writer named Maya Angelou, soon moved on to other occupations, but many made a career at Muni, though they didn’t seem to get their fair share of promotions.

A man named H. Welton Flynn helped change that.

Appointed as the city’s first African-American on any commission in 1970, Flynn–an accountant by profession–expected equity for African-Americans at Muni…and worked tirelessly for it.

In 1974, under Flynn’s leadership, Muni appointed the first African-American general manager of a major US transit system. Curtis E. Green, one of those World War II Muni hires (at 90 cents per hour), rose through the ranks after starting as a bus driver. Many African-Americans were to follow Green’s footsteps into top jobs at hundreds of US transit systems, including Muni itself.

Curtis E. Green

Curtis E. Green, Muni’s first African-American general manager.

Welton Flynn served on commissions governing Muni for almost 30 years, longer than any city commissioner in San Francisco history, and was elected a commission president or chairman a record eight separate times.

Besides his tireless advocacy for affirmative action in hiring and contracting, Flynn also pioneered paratransit service in 1979 and spearheaded many improvements in Muni operations and services during his long career.

Following his retirement from public service in 2004, Flynn was honored by numerous organizations for his service, including election to the American Public Transportation Association Hall of Fame in 2006.

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By the late 1940s, African-American employees provided a strong foundation for Muni service. San Francisco Municipal Railway photos.