Black Barrier-Breakers in San Francisco Transit

In recent decades, memorable African-American leaders have made history in San Francisco transit. There’s Curtis E. Green, Sr., the first black general manager of a major US transit agency. H. Welton Flynn, first black San Francisco City Commissioner, and leader of Muni’s governing boards for many years. Larry Martin, a powerful and persuasive head of Muni’s operators’ union.

For this year’s Black History Month, we’ll reach back further in time, to highlight three women and one man who broke barriers in transit.

Charlotte Brown and Mary Ellen Pleasant: In April 1863, Charlotte Brown boarded a horse-drawn streetcar run by the Omnibus Railroad Company. The operator told her she wasn’t allowed to ride because she was Black. She told him she had always ridden the streetcars and was very late to her appointment. When a white woman on board complained about her presence, the operator physically removed Charlotte from the car.

Omnibus Railroad horsecar on Montgomery Street

She brought Omnibus Railroad Co. to court – twice – and won. It was a huge victory, happening just after black people were allowed to testify against whites in court. Another Civil Rights pioneer, the noted African-American entrepreneur Mary Ellen Pleasant, had the same experience in 1866, before the earlier suits were finally adjudicated. Pleasant successfully challenged streetcar segregation all the way to the California Supreme Court and won. These women changed California history, some 90 years before Rosa Parks famously refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama bus and changed national history.

Audley Cole: Audley was the first black operator ever hired by Muni, in 1941. He passed the civil service examination by leaving his race off the form. After he was hired, white operators refused to give him the training necessary to start work. Fourteen operators decided to be suspended rather than train him, and the operators’ union threatened a $100 fine against any operator who trained him. The one white man who tried to train him was beaten so severely he was hospitalized.

Audley Cole

After three months, with support from the ILWU and the general manager of Muni, he finally received training directly from the head of Muni’s training department. At Muni, he fought for fairer treatment for future black employees. 3 years later, there were nearly 100 black employees at Muni. “Civil service is dedicated to fair play,” said Cole. “It’s a job for which I have qualified and I want it. I’m going to get it.”

Maya Angelou: Now remembered as a famed author and poet, Maya Angelou’s first job – in 1943, when she was 16 – was as a streetcar conductor in San Francisco. She wanted the job initially, she said, because she “liked the uniforms.” When she tried to apply, no one at the Market Street Railway office would give her the job application.

Maya Angelou

She didn’t give up – she went back to the office every single day and sat in the waiting room. Eventually, a manager approached her and allowed her to apply. (She said she was 18, the minimum age). She became the first Black female streetcar operator in San Francisco. During that summer, she likely operated the 7-Haight and 5-McAllister lines (today’s 5-Fulton). Market Street Railway is proposing that Streetcar 798, of the type she worked on, be dedicated to her memory when it is restored (hopefully, to start later this year).

We salute all those who have stood up to racism, sexism, and discrimination in San Francisco’s transit industry…for more than 150 years!

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Maya Angelou, SF Streetcar Conductor

Maya Angelou has passed away, at the age of 86. As an adult, she gained global fame as a writer. Well before that, as as a teen-ager, she broke barriers right here in San Francisco, when she was hired by our namesake, Market Street Railway, as the first female African-American streetcar conductor in the city.
She first told this story in “I Know Why the the Caged Bird Sings,” many years ago. She didn’t name the line she worked, but based on her description, it was more than likely the 7-Haight.
She talked to Oprah about it last year. We have a clip of that interview. It’s well worth watching.

During her tenure with Market Street Railway Company, which did not last very long, she more than likely worked out of the Haight Street car barn near Stanyan. The type of streetcar she worked on was almost certainly from Market Street Railway’s “100-class,” built by the Jewett Car Company of Ohio in 1911, pictured below.

100-class Streetcar image
Maya Angelou worked as a conductor on the rear platform of a streetcar of this type, most likely on the 7-Haight line. Here, the streetcar is crossing Golden Gate Park, having just left Playland-at-the-Beach for another trip to the Ferry Building. They were long trips, and after dark, pretty lonely in the western end of the city back then. Photo from Market Street Railway Archives, Walt Vielbaum collection.

In our San Francisco Railway Museum, you can stand at the conductor’s station of a streetcar identical to the one Maya Angelou worked on. Our volunteers have constructed an exact replica, complete with firebox, conductor’s bell, and all the other details from the period. The museum is open daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. across from the Ferry Building at the F-line Steuart Street stop (77 Steuart Street), and it’s free.

We are all enriched by the legacy of wonderful works left by Dr. Angelou. A life well lived, indeed.

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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.

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