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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, 1993

For Black History Month I want to highlight the positive influence of one of our most famous former inhabitants, Maya Angelou, and show how she left an indelible mark on San Francisco. Angelou was born in St Louis, Missouri, but while still young her family moved to Oakland, in the East Bay. Like a lot of people she loved San Francisco’s streetcars, but she took it a step or two further and incredibly, aged just sixteen years old, she became the first black female streetcar conductor in San Francisco history. This represented a major change in recruitment practices by the railway companies, and by the late 1940’s their ranks had become far more diverse (reflecting San Francisco’s diverse population). 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 in San Francisco

In 1942 her mother, Vivian Johnson, 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.

An MSR job ad in the paper in the summer of 1943 caught Angelou’s eye. Although she was only fifteen years old she was actually a whole year ahead at school and wanted to take a few months off and 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 near the Embarcadero every day for two weeks, refusing to be disheartened when they snubbed her at first, until the supervisor finally 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!

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.

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.

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 1972, Angelou’s Georgia, Georgia became the first produced screenplay by a Black woman (the film was made in Sweden). In the 1980’s she directed a revival of the play Moon on a Rainbow Shawl at the Almeida Theatre, in London. A full list of all her accomplishments during this period would require its own lengthy article.

Then, in 1993, she delivered her poem On the Pulse of Morning at the first inauguration of President Clinton in Washington. It must have been an incredible moment for someone so involved with the Civil Rights movement – and for a woman from Stamps who hadn’t uttered a single word for so many years when little.

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

Angelou died in 2014. Her memorial service included speeches by Oprah Winfrey, Michelle Obama and Bill Clinton.

Legacy of Maya Angelou

She would be the perfect subject for a biopic, but which part of her incredible life would the filmmakers focus on? I, for one, feel that even amongst all her many significant achievements, one of the greatest must have been to keep showing up at the dingy offices of MSR until she was interviewed, and then to stand at the back of a streetcar day after day for months, engaging with her fellow San Franciscans.

For her to have done that and made such a difference, at such a young age, after going through the terrible things that she had, is nothing short of remarkable. And it also proves that young people really can change the world.

If you have any feedback on How Maya Angelou Changed San Francisco please email us or reach out on social media, we’d love to hear from you.

– By Damien Blackshaw (Twitter)

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