Maya Angelou shattered barriers as San Francisco’s first Black female streetcar conductor in the 1940s before becoming a famous orator, poet, author, and civil rights activist. She started the work when she was only 16 years old. She stated that she was desperate for the job since she “loved the clothes.”
“On the streetcars, I saw women with their small changing belts. They wore bib-style hats and form-fitting coats. Their uniforms were fantastic. During an interview with Oprah Winfrey, Angelou stated, “That is the job I want.”
But gaining the streetcar job wasn’t simple. When she tried to apply for a job in 1944, no one at the Market Street Railway office would give her the application. She had recently come to San Francisco with her mother, Vivian Baxter, from St. Louis, and had dropped out of high school two years prior.
Angelou’s mother was the one who persuaded her to apply for the position after she was initially turned down. “Go get it,” Angelou recalled her mother telling her in an interview with Winfrey. I’ll give you money here. You go down every day and arrive before the secretaries do. You’re sitting in your workplace. You’re reading one of your large, heavy Russian books… And when they go out to eat, you join them. Visit a reputable eatery. You know how to place a good meal order. Then return before the secretaries return from lunch and wait for them to go.”
Angelou claimed she accomplished all of this by returning to the Market Street Railway office every day and sitting in the waiting room. “They made fun of me.” They pulled their mouths out and uttered some racial [slurs].
“However, there’s a catch. I sat because I didn’t want to go home. I was terrified of telling my mother that I wasn’t as powerful as she believed. As a result, I sat for two weeks. Every single day. Then, two weeks later, a man emerged from his office and said, ‘Come here.’ And when he asked why I wanted the job, I responded it was because of the outfits. ‘I enjoy people,’ I added. As a result, I got the job.”
Angelou informed her employers she was 18 years old, which was the legal minimum age. According to Market Street Railway, she “operated the 7-Haight line, which at the 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,” making her the first Black female streetcar operator in San Francisco.
Angelou’s mother was concerned about her safety as a 16-year-old working in the early mornings. So, for a while, Angelou’s mother drove her to her work out at Ocean Beach at 5:30 or 6 a.m., and then followed the streetcar in her car with her revolver beside her. Angelou assured Winfrey that she would keep an eye out until sunrise to make sure she saw everyone who boarded, all the way down to the Ferry Building and back to the beach.
Angelou would write about her streetcar driving adventures in one of her autobiographies, “Mom & Me & Mom.” In her memoir, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” the author and civil rights activist remember collecting nickels from passengers on the black platform of a 7-Haight streetcar.
During a program honoring “Women Who Move the Nation,” Angelou received a lifetime achievement award from the Conference of Minority Transportation Officials in 2014. The goal of the conference is to boost minority leadership in the transportation sector.
Most people are unaware of Angelou’s streetcar encounter to this day. She is well known as an accomplished African-American poet and writer. Angelou grew raised in Arkansas and made a name for herself in writing in 1970 with “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” a memoir about prejudice and violence she had experienced as a youngster.
Angelou began his artistic career as a nightclub dancer and went on to become one of the most influential figures in modern literature for the next 60 years. She published more than 30 volumes, including essays, poetry, and seven autobiographies. The audio recording of the On the Pulse of Morning poem by the famed African-American poet earned the Grammy Award for “Best Spoken Word” in 1994, extending her reach and appeal. On The Pulse Of Morning is a 106-line poem on responsibility, change, inclusiveness, and optimism for a country that has gone through some difficult times.
During Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993, the civil rights activist made history by being the first Black and female to recite a poem during the swearing-in event.
Angelou, who died in 2014, will have her portrait included on a series of quarters that the United States Mint will distribute in January 2022.