Maya Angelou’s unknown past as SF railway conductor

Graphic by Julio Ceberio [email protected]

Maya Angelou was known for her poetry and activism but very few know of her summer in San Francisco as the first woman of color to be hired as a street railway conductor.

The impact of her art and hardships are remembered by people such as SF State student Vianney Casas, who said Angelou has inspired her to rise above adversities experienced as a woman of color.

“I admire that women like Maya Angelou still rise above and speak out about issues that are silenced and swept [under the rug in this country],” said Casas, who preferred to be identified as a womxn. “In this country, being a woman is already hard enough. Having your skin a darker shade than the glorified white adds on to the heaviness of existing.”

Angelou was 16 years old in the summer of 1943 when she set her mind to getting a job as a railway conductor.

“I saw women on the street cars 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.

Every morning for two weeks, Angelou would show up to the Market Street Railway Office and would patiently sit in the lobby waiting to be taken seriously. Angelou expressed in interviews that the secretaries of the office would laugh at her and make derogatory racial slurs while she patiently sat waiting to be hired.

Finally, a man working at the Railway brought her into his office and asked Angelou why she was interested in the job. Angelou expressed her love and fondness for the uniform and got the job.

After much persistence and perseverance, Angelou became the first woman of color to be hired by the Market Street Railway. During her summer working for the San Francisco Railway, she outlined the 39 track that ran through Balboa.

“She would have been meeting a variety of people from the Richmond which was one of SF’s earlier suburbias,” said Frank O’Connell, a longtime public transportation user and now employer of the Market Street Railway.

Angelou’s main duties as a conductor included ensuring people paid their fare and making sure people were safe and finally creating a happy environment on the cable car, according to O’Connell.

O’Connell explained that during the ‘40s public transportation was a means to not only get around in The City, but it also built a sense of community within San Francisco’s districts. And like other conductors, Angelou left a lasting impact with her riders.

The persistence that Angelou showed to become a street railway conductor as a 16 year old was engraved in her artistic literary work, activism and her devotion to her faith.

The optimism and resilience that is exuded in Angelou’s poetry and was seen in her persistence for the street railroad job, can be attributed to her faith. She was a member of Unity Church in San Francisco, a religious community that is not strictly interfaced with any denomination. Through Unity, she met her mentor and deepened her spirituality.

Angelou also motivated some of Casas’ own art. Her favorite poem written by Angelou, Still I Rise, reminds her that all can rise and become powerful.

“As a womxn of color, I always look for women who can, to some extent, understand my experience,” said Casas.

“Maya learned while sitting in our building that God loves all and is within all of us,” said Chief Operating Officer of Unity Church, Emily Gilliam.

Unity Church member, Rev. Eric Butterworth was Angelou’s  mentor. He expressed to Angelou that she had a powerful gift of exposing people to deep-rooted feelings through her literary work, which, she still continues to do despite her passing.

Graphic by Julio Ceberio [email protected]