Before becoming a prolific orator, poet, author and civil rights activist, Maya Angelou shattered barriers working as San Francisco’s first Black female streetcar conductor in the 1940s. She was just 16 years old when she started the job. She said she wanted the job so badly because she “liked the uniforms.”
“I saw women on the streetcars with their little changer belts. They had caps with bibs on them and form-fitting jackets. I loved their uniforms. I said that is the job I want,” Angelou told Oprah Winfrey during an interview.
But it wasn’t easy getting the streetcar job. She recalled that in 1944 when she tried to apply, no one at the Market Street Railway office would give her the job application. At the time, she had just moved to San Francisco from St. Louis with her mother, Vivian Baxter, and dropped out of high school two years earlier.
It was Angelou’s mother who encouraged her to pursue the job after she was first denied. Angelou, in her interview with Winfrey, recalled her mom saying, “Go get it. Here, I’ll give you money. Every day, you go down and be there before the secretaries get there. You sit there in the office. You read one of your big, thick Russian books … And when they go to lunch, you go. Go to a good restaurant. You know how to order good food. Then go back before the secretaries get back from lunch, and sit there until they leave.”
Angelou said she did all of that, going back to the Market Street Railway office every single day, where she sat in the waiting room. “They laughed at me. They pushed out their lips and used some negative racial [slurs].
“But here’s the thing. I sat there because I was afraid to go home. I was afraid to tell my mother that I wasn’t as strong as she thought I was. So I sat there for two weeks. Every day. And then after two weeks, a man came out of his office and he said, ‘Come here.’ And he asked me why I wanted the job, and I said, ‘I like the uniforms.’ And I said, ‘I like people.’ And so I got the job.”
Angelou told her employers that she was 18, the minimum age. Becoming the first Black female streetcar operator in San Francisco, she “operated the 7-Haight line, which at that time ran from East Bay Terminal (at First and Mission) out Market, Haight, and then along Lincoln Way to reach the beach, crossing the park to terminate at Playland,” according to Market Street Railway.
As a 16-year-old working in the early mornings, Angelou’s mother was worried about her safety. So what Angelou’s mother did for some time was to take her to her shift at 5:30 or 6 am, out by Ocean Beach, and then follow the streetcar in her car with her pistol beside her. She would watch to make sure she saw everyone who got on, all the way down to the Ferry Building and back to the beach, until daybreak, Angelou told Winfrey.
Angelou would write about her streetcar driving experiences in a book, “Mom & Me & Mom,” one of her autobiographies. In her memoir, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”, the author and civil rights activist describes standing on the black platform of a 7-Haight streetcar collecting nickels from passengers.
In 2014, Angelou received a lifetime achievement award from the Conference of Minority Transportation Officials during a program celebrating “Women Who Move the Nation.” The conference’s aim is to increase minority leadership in the transportation industry.
To date, most people are not aware of Angelou’s streetcar experience. She is mostly remembered as an esteemed African-American writer and poet. Angelou had grown up in Arkansas and had subsequently established a reputation in literature in 1970 with “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” a memoir that touched on racism and the abuse she faced in childhood.
From nightclub dancing, Angelou started a career in the arts and for 60 years became one of the most influential individuals in modern literature. She wrote over 30 books, including essays and poetry, as well as seven autobiographies. The renowned African-American poet’s audio recording of the On the Pulse of Morning poem won the 1994 Grammy Award in the “Best Spoken Word” category, widening her reach and appeal. On The Pulse Of Morning is a 106 line poem with themes such as responsibility, change, inclusion and hope for a country after some dark moments.
The civil rights activist also made history during Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993 when she became the first Black as well as the first female to recite a poem at the swearing-in ceremony.
Angelou, who passed away in 2014, is set to have her image featured on a set of quarters that will be circulated by the United States Mint in January 2022.