Iconic poet Maya Angelou remembered as SF civil rights pioneer 

click to enlarge Maya Angelou, who graduated from Mission High School in San Francisco, studied drama and dance at San Francisco’s Labor School and became The City’s first black female streetcar conductor. - NELL REDMOND/AP FILE PHOTO
  • Nell Redmond/AP file photo
  • Maya Angelou, who graduated from Mission High School in San Francisco, studied drama and dance at San Francisco’s Labor School and became The City’s first black female streetcar conductor.

To the world, Maya Angelou was an author, a poet, a Renaissance woman, but to San Francisco, where she lived years before her storied fame, she was a local pioneer.

Growing up, Angelou, who died Wednesday morning at her home in Winston-Salem, N.C., at age 86, spent time between San Francisco and Stamps, Ark., moving between her grandmother's and parents' homes.

In The City, she frequented the Fillmore, a flourishing center of black culture and arts, and became the first black female streetcar conductor for the Market Street Railway Co., then a private competitor to Muni.

Angelou wrote about conducting the streetcar in her breakthrough memoir, "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" and spoke about the experience in an interview with Oprah Winfrey.

She was 16 and conducted the streetcar of the 7-Haight line as a summer job, likely in 1944, said Rick Laubscher, president of Market Street Railway. Before World War II, conducting a streetcar was something only white males did, and it was a respectable middle-class job.

"She was one of the pioneers applying for jobs that people didn't want to give to African-Americans," Laubscher said. "And opened the door for thousands of African-Americans after World War II to get good-paying jobs at Muni and other transit agencies."

Angelou read many books and participated in the political culture in the Fillmore, particularly at Marcus Book Store, said Blanche Richardson, the daughter of a founder of the store who would often stay over at Angelou's house.

"She liked being around those books. She had been a reader up to that time but certainly not a writer," Richardson said. "But look what happened."

Angelou was an actress, singer and dancer in the 1950s and 1960s and broke through as an author in 1969 with "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," which became standard (and occasionally censored) reading and made Angelou one of the first black women to enjoy mainstream success.

In 1993, she read her cautiously hopeful "On the Pulse of Morning" at President Bill Clinton's first inauguration. For President George W. Bush, she read another poem, "Amazing Peace," at the 2005 Christmas tree lighting ceremony at the White House. She was awarded a National Medal of Arts and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country's highest civilian honor. In 2013, she received an honorary National Book Award.

As a teenager in San Francisco, Angelou attended Washington High School and graduated in 1945 from Mission High School, which on its website Wednesday posted: "Mission High School says goodbye to former alum Maya Angelou....rest in power! #phenomenalwoman."

Her photograph is in display cases at both high schools and her memoir is read in city schools.

"She was a wonderful role model in terms of how she overcame adversity, and her major accomplishments in life," San Francisco Unified School District spokeswoman Gentle Blythe said.

Angelou also worked at strip clubs and danced at stages around the world. In her mid-20s, she was performing at the Purple Onion.

Mayor Ed Lee, in a statement, said Angelou "fought for civil rights and inspired us with her art."

"Her poetry and prose inspired us to recognize the potential within each of us," Lee said. "Her words were felt deeply, and her legacy has had a profound impact in our city and on our residents."

Maya Angelou

BIRTH NAME: Marguerite Johnson. She would take the stage name of Maya Angelou as an adult.

AGE: 86. Born April 4, 1928, in St. Louis. She would spend some of her childhood in Stamps, Ark. She died May 28, 2014, at her home in Winston-Salem, N.C.

EARLY CAREER: Angelou studied drama and dance at San Francisco's Labor School. She became The City's first black female streetcar conductor. As a young single mother, she danced at a strip club before touring in productions of "Porgy and Bess." She worked on civil-rights issues with Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcom X and met Nelson Mandela while spending several years in Egypt and Ghana.

AUTOBIOGRAPHY: Angelou's book "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" was released in 1969. She would write six more books about her life, along with more than 30 other works.

POETRY: Angelou read her poem "On the Pulse of Morning" at the inauguration of President Bill Clinton in 1993. One of her best-known poems was "Still I Rise."

FINAL TWEET: "Listen to yourself and in that quietude you might hear the voice of God." (posted May 23).

The Associated Press contributed to this story.


About The Author

Jessica Kwong

Jessica Kwong

Jessica Kwong covers transportation, housing, and ethnic communities, among other topics, for the San Francisco Examiner. She covered City Hall as a fellow for the San Francisco Chronicle, night cops and courts for the San Antonio Express-News, general news for Spanish-language newspapers La Opinión and El Mensajero,... more
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