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How Maya Angelou Changed San Francisco

Maya Angelou reading at President Clinton's inauguration
Maya Angelou, reading her poem ‘On the Pulse of Morning’, at President Clinton’s inauguration in 1993

For Black History Month this article will highlight the influence of one of our most famous former inhabitants, Maya Angelou, and show the indelible mark she left on San Francisco. Angelou was born in St Louis, Missouri, but while still young her family moved to Oakland and in 1944, aged just sixteen years old, she became the first black female streetcar conductor in San Francisco’s history. This presaged a major change in recruitment practices and by the late 1940’s the ranks of railway employees in SF had become far more diverse. Ultimately Angelou rode the cable cars on to a hugely varied and impressive career that culminated with the award of the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama, in 2011.

Birth and Early Life

Angelou was born Marguerite Annie Johnson in 1928 in St Louis, but spent a large part of her childhood living with her grandmother, who (very unusually for a black woman in those days) had a successful general store in Stamps, Arkansas.

When Angelou was seven years old she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend. She told her older brother, who promptly told the rest of the family, and the man was charged and put on trial, before, incredibly, receiving a sentence of just one day in jail. However four days after being released he was killed – probably by Angelou’s uncles.

Angelou herself was so shocked by these events that she refused to speak for five years, believing that it was her voice that killed him and that “my voice would kill anyone”. Eventually it was her love of literature, and specifically poetry, that got her talking again, when a family friend, Mrs. Bertha Flowers, told her: “You do not love poetry, not until you speak it”.

Maya Angelou Moves to San Francisco

In 1942 her mother moved, with Angelou and her brother, to Oakland, in the Bay Area. By that time the Second World War was in full swing and many men were being called up for service, that in itself was breaking down all kinds of barriers. Women were now moving into jobs that had previously been considered to be too physical for them. Factories, shipbuilding yards and the docks were all beginning to employ females. So too was the Market Street Railway.

Maya Angelou
Maya Angelou, while attending High School in San Francisco

An MSR job ad in the paper caught Angelou’s eye. Although she was only fifteen years old she was actually a whole year ahead at school and wanted to get some work experience. The idea of standing at the back of a streetcar, going up and down the city’s hills seemed very appealing. She determined to get the job.

Accordingly she went to MSR’s offices every day for two weeks – at the end of which the supervisor came out and asked her why she wanted to be a “conductorette”. She told him the truth, she loved their serge-blue tailored uniforms, before adding “and I love people”. The man gave her an application form – upon which she immediately lied and wrote that she was eighteen years old!

San Francisco streetcar 1940's
San Francisco streetcar, 1940’s. Market Street Railway Archive

One day Angelou’s mother drove her down to the streetcar barn, out by the beach, where she was due to work the old 7-Haight line. Her mother then followed the streetcar for its whole route in the family automobile, to reassure her on her first day at work. Angelou continued to work for MSR for five months, before returning to George Washington High School, in Richmond. She graduated two years later, at seventeen years old, only a few weeks before giving birth to her son.

San Francisco streetcar, in front of City Hall
San Francisco streetcar, in front of City Hall. Market Street Railway Archive

So, was she really the first black woman to work on the San Francisco streetcars or cable-cars? Almost certainly. The fact is there are no employment records from that time to verify it for sure, but in any case to debate this detail is to completely miss the main point, which is that she certainly didn’t know of anyone else and, even if one or two others had just started, she was still a pioneer. None of her colleagues at MSR had ever worked with a black woman before, the passengers had never had one asking them for their fare. This was a big, big deal.

However things were changing, and the MSR began hiring more and more people of color. The African Americans who worked on the railways during these years undoubtedly played a significant role in integrating society in San Francisco, since so many residents would have had to interact with them, due to their public-facing roles.

Streetcar operators in San Francisco, 1947
Streetcar operators in San Francisco, 1947. SFMTA Archive

Angelou’s Later Career

As for Angelou, she had only just started changing the world! After High School she attended the California Labor School, an educational institution in the Financial District that was supported by seventy-two separate Trade Unions. She married a man called Tosh Angelos (from whom she later took the name Angelou, ‘Maya’ having been a family nickname since she was a toddler) and became a dancer, singer and actor.

In the 1960’s she became very involved in the Civil Rights Movement, working with both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. Then, in 1969, she published her autobiography, I know Why the Caged Bird Sings. It became an international phenomenon and brought her wide-spread critical acclaim.

Obviously she continued her phenomenal creative output, even becoming an award-winning song-writer, as well as continuing to act and write. In 1993 she delivered her poem On the Pulse of Morning at the inauguration of President Clinton in Washington.

To know her life story is to simultaneously wonder what on earth you have been doing with your own life and feel glad that you didn’t have to go through half the things she has.

Gary Younge, The Guardian, 2009

Hers was a truly remarkable life, but I feel that one of the greatest things she ever did must have been to keep showing up at the dingy offices of MSR, near the Embarcadero, and then stand on the back of a streetcar day after day, selling tickets to her fellow San Franciscans.

Maya Angelou San Francisco
San Francisco cable cars today

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– By Damien Blackshaw (Twitter)

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