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Maya Angelou honored for her first job as a street car conductor in San Francisco

Maya Angelou (File photo by Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)
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Poet Maya Angelou, who became the first African-American female street car conductor in San Francisco, received a lifetime-achievement award from the Conference of Minority Transportation Officials during a program Wednesday celebrating “Women Who Move the Nation.”

The Conference of Minority Transportation Officials, which was founded in 1971 at Howard University with a mission of increasing minority participation and leadership in the transportation industry, each year celebrates the contributions of women leaders who work in transportation.

“This is an opportunity to recognize phenomenal women who are passionate about what they do,” said Julie Cunningham, president of the Conference of Minority Transportation Officials. “They don’t really expect recognition.”

In her recent book, “Mom & Me & Mom,” Angelou tells the story of how she became the first African-American woman to work as a street car conductor in San Francisco.

“I was black, 16 and had the nerve to want the job,” Angelou told Oprah during an interview last year.

“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’s mother, Vivian Baxter, encouraged her daughter to apply for the job.

“I went down to place an application and they wouldn’t even give it to me,” Angelou recalled. “I went back to my mother and said, ‘They wouldn’t allow me to apply.’”

“She said, ‘Do you know why?’”

“I said, ‘Yes, because I’m a Negro.’”

Her mother asked her whether it was the job she wanted, and she told her mother it was.

“She said, ‘Well go get it,” Angelou recalled.

Baxter advised her daughter to go sit in the application office and wait. “Go down everyday and be there before the secretaries get there and read your big Russian books.” Angelou was reading Fyodor Dostoevsky at the time. “And sit there until they leave.”

“I sat there for two weeks—every day,” Angelou said. “After two weeks, a man came out of the office and said, ‘Come here. Then he asked me, ‘Why do you want the job?’

“I said, ‘Because I like the uniforms. And I like people.’ I got the job.”

Because of a sudden illness, Angelou, who is 86, was unable to attend the breakfast program Wednesday at the JW Marriott. Civil-rights leader the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson gave the keynote address.

“Women have done the heavy lifting in lifting all of us up,” Jackson told the crowd. “It’s about gaining rights driven by passion and determination.”