Her husband, Howard Stokes, went to Glen Echo thousands of times. But he never went inside the park, either. Stokes was a streetcar operator for the Capital Transit Co., a firm that had its own racist history: The company refused to hire Black bus drivers or streetcar operators until 1955.
Howard Stokes became an operator a year later and was assigned to the No. 20 trolley line, running between Union Station and Cabin John, Md. That meant he took White patrons to a park he was barred from entering.
He couldn’t even go inside to use the bathroom, as the White drivers could.
“You had to hold it till you got back to Union Station,” Stokes told Answer Man.
If you are a Black Washingtonian, your memories of Glen Echo and its streetcar are probably vastly different from the memories of White Washingtonians.
While passenger seating on the District’s streetcars was never segregated, employment was. The CTC fought strenuously against integrating its driver corps. When World War II created an acute shortage of male workers, the company opted to hire White female drivers over Black men.
In 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Committee on Fair Employment Practice ordered the CTC to disregard race in hiring. The company dragged its feet, claiming that as many as 90 percent of its White drivers would quit if Black drivers were hired.
In an editorial on Jan. 18, 1945, The Washington Post wrote: “To bar men from serving in these jobs because of their race or color is at once to hamper the war program and to subvert the principles for which the war is being waged.”
Among those waging the war was Howard Stokes. He was serving in the 665th
Quartermaster Truck Company, U.S. 9th Army. After basic training in Mississippi, Stokes sailed with his company to Scotland, then was transferred to England.
In England, children would follow Stokes and other African American soldiers around at night. They had been told by White American troops that Black people grew tails after dark.
“Then we took the boat to France,” Stokes said. “Then we went to Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg and Germany.”
Stokes was a cook, preparing meals aboard a moving truck as it headed east, but he performed other tasks, too, including hauling supplies and transporting bodies of dead soldiers back from the battlefield. Among his decorations was a citation for driving a vehicle 51 hours under enemy fire “without sleep or relief.”
In 1945, a civilian again, Stokes took a job at the Capital Transit car barn at 14th and Decatur streets NW, cleaning and “shifting” streetcars: moving them around the barn. The pay was 68 cents an hour. He could earn 70 cents an hour as a porter at Union Station, but he longed to drive a streetcar.
In constant need of bus and streetcar operators — in 1952, the company was short for 64 to 186 openings a month — Capital Transit placed ads around the country. Hiring Black drivers
was out of the question, an executive said: “It is the considered judgment of the company, on the basis of past experience and the attitude of its present operators, that if Negroes were hired as operators the company would end up with more overtime rather than less overtime.”
Finally, in March 1955, under pressure from civil rights groups, the District’s Public Utilities Commission and the White House, the CTC hired its first five Black bus drivers and streetcar operators.
“The steps the company has taken to provide equal economic opportunity for qualified persons is a testament to the ideal of human dignity and liberty cherished by us all,” said Vice President Richard Nixon.
In 1956, Howard Stokes — the decorated war veteran — was finally able to drive a streetcar. He loved it. He grew to know the regulars on his route. He came to love the smell of the honeysuckle that bloomed along the long run to Glen Echo, a scent that reminded him of his boyhood in Farmville, Va.
Whenever his mother visited, she would accompany him to work, sitting proudly behind him.
Not everything was easy. Some colleagues were unfriendly. But Stokes made a career of it. When streetcars were phased out in 1962, he moved to buses. Eventually, Capital Transit became D.C. Transit and then WMATA. Stokes retired after 37 years.
“He never complained about anything,” Jane Stokes said. “Sure, he had some bad experiences. But he never came home with it. He just made the best of it. He was doing what he liked to do. He knew he had waited a long time for this chance to do this in his life.”
Jane Stokes is 89. Howard Stokes is 99. They live in a
brick house in Jessup, Md., that Howard built with his brother-in-law. Their daughter, Allyson Stokes, grew up there and lives in Ellicott City, Md.
Stokes said he was happy when the streetcar returned to H Street NE in 2016, though he’s never ridden it. He’d prefer to drive.
“I love the streetcar,” said Howard Stokes.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.