Taking “White” Literally

P1030051Beyond the cool historic streetcars, cable cars, and buses, Muni Heritage Weekend taught some important social history lessons as well. One was part of the program: a tribute to the late Maya Angelou for her teen-age persistence in becoming the first female African-American streetcar conductor in San Francisco. St. Ignatius senior Johnnae D. Sanders gave wonderful readings that illuminated that story both days of the festival. The next issue of our Member newsletter, Inside Track, out at the end of the year, will dive more deeply into Angelou’s pioneering transit role.

We learned another lesson that amplified Angelou’s story in terms of what she had to overcome and reminded us that things were worse elsewhere.P1050928One of our Facebook Group members, Curley Reed, posted a photo of orange and black 1938 motor coach No. 042. It was built by the White Motor Company of Cleveland, Ohio, and sported a prominent logo on each end of the bus, saying simply, “White.” Curley said that coach was “one of the buses my Mom thought she couldn’t ride when she came to San Francisco in the late 40s because it had ‘White’ on the front of it. She was just 19 and from the ‘Jim Crow’ south. After she let several buses go by an older woman told her that she could get on any bus in San Francisco.”

San Franciscans of all backgrounds benefited from the brave advocacy of an African-American woman from an earlier era, Mary Ellen Pleasant.  She filed lawsuits right after the Civil War against two San Francisco transit companies who had ejected her from their horsecars. One of these suits, Pleasant v. North Beach & Mission Railroad Company, went to the State Supreme Court, whose ruling outlawed segregation in San Francisco transit.

In her writings, Maya Angelou contrasted her experiences in the south with those in San Francisco more than once.  She — and all of us — can thank Mary Ellen Pleasant and other fearless pioneers fighting for racial equality in California. The job isn’t done, but at least our city and our transit agency — with the first African-American general manager in the U.S. transit industry, the late Curtis E. Green, and a longtime Board chair of exceptional stature, H. Welton Flynn — has shown the way forward.P1060066And once again, let’s thank the senior from St. Ignatius, Johnnae D. Saunders, who did such a great job acting the part of 16-year old Marguerite Johnson, who wouldn’t take no from the old Market Street Railway in her bid to become the first African-American streetcar conductor in San Francisco in 1944. We are proud that the woman that became known to the world as Maya Angelou lived that story and told it to us all. Thanks too to our board member and volunteer coordinator Nick Figone, who recruited Johnnae and helped outfit her in a conductor’s uniform resembling that of the World War II period, with the help of our board member Alison Cant. Thanks also to Gary Fiset, who supported SFMTA’s marketing department in producing great signage, like the Maya Angelou poster above, and in partnering with us on getting the word out about what was indeed a great weekend.