Maya Angelou and Market Street Railway

Something about the poet and author Dr. Maya Angelou escaped most people’s attention, until now. She was once employed by our namesake, Market Street Railway Company, Muni’s old competitor, as a streetcar conductor. The first black female conductor in San Francisco history, in fact.

She said this decades ago in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, when she describes in some detail standing on the back platform of a streetcar rolling along the edge of Golden Gate Park, collecting nickels from boarding passengers. But now it has become national news, because she talked about it with Oprah. Here’s a clip from that interview, courtesy Harpo Productions.

How Dr. Maya Angelou Became San Francisco’s First Black Streetcar Conductor, from Oprah Winfrey’s Super Soul Sunday. If the video doesn’t appear above, click here.

Dr. Maya Angelou says the love of her mother, Vivian Baxter, encouraged her to live a life full of pizzazz. It was also that love that helped Dr. Angelou to become the first black streetcar conductor in San Francisco at age 16. “I loved the uniforms,” Dr. Angelou says. “So I said, ‘That’s a job I want.'” When she went to get an application, Dr. Angelou says, the staff refused to give her one. Find out how her mother encouraged her to persevere. Then, see how Vivian made sure her daughter was safe at work during her early-morning shifts.

We provided the program with some photos of Market Street Railway streetcars next to Golden Gate Park. (It’s not entirely clear from her writings and interviews whether she worked the 5-McAllister or 7-Haight line.) The producers added photos of female transit workers from other systems, not San Francisco’s. The program promotes “How Dr. Angelou Became San Francisco’s First Black Streetcar Conductor.” Hiring records no longer exist, but anecdotal evidence we’ve gathered over the years indicate several African-Americans found employment on the streetcars a little earlier than Dr. Angelou. That, however, in no way diminishes her incredible story of perseverance and determination in overcoming both racism and sexism to land the job she wanted — when she was just 16 years old and still used her birth name, Marguerite Johnson.

The video clip is well worth watching.