Maya Angelou: Remembering a Cultural Giant’s Life in San Francisco
By Olivia Allen-Price and Dan Brekke
When veteran KQED journalist Belva Davis bowed out of her longtime post as host of “This Week in Northern California” 18 months ago, she asked her longtime friend Maya Angelou to sum up the importance of enduring relationships and friendship.
Davis visited Angelou, then 84, at her home in North Carolina. She talked about the literature that mattered most to her, from Shakespeare to Amiri Baraka, and recapped her career as entertainer, novelist, poet and cultural inspiration. That arc brought her at one point to KQED, where in 1968 she wrote, produced and narrated a documentary series called “Blacks, Blues, Black!”
As the Associated Press recounts, San Francisco was an important part of Angelou’s early life, too:
Her very name as an adult was a reinvention. Angelou was born Marguerite Johnson in St. Louis and raised in Stamps, Arkansas, and San Francisco, moving back and forth between her parents and her grandmother. She was smart and fresh to the point of danger, packed off by her family to California after sassing a white store clerk in Arkansas. Other times, she didn’t speak at all: At age 7, she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend and didn’t talk for years. She learned by reading, and listening.
…At age 9, she was writing poetry. By 17, she was a single mother. In her early 20s, she danced at a strip joint, ran a brothel, was married, and then divorced. But by her mid-20s, she was performing at the Purple Onion in San Francisco, where she shared billing with another future star, Phyllis Diller. She also spent a few days with Billie Holiday, who was kind enough to sing a lullaby to Angelou’s son, Guy, surly enough to heckle her off the stage and astute enough to tell her: “You’re going to be famous. But it won’t be for singing.”
WNYC (yes, a New York public media outlet beating us to the punch) relates Angelou’s story of being the city’s first African-American streetcar conductor:
Angelou … also has a place in civil rights transportation history: At the age of 16, she said she became San Francisco’s first black streetcar conductor.
In an interview with Oprah Winfrey, she said “I loved the uniforms. So I said, ‘That’s the job I want!’ ”
But when she applied for the job, at first the office wouldn’t give her an application. On the advice of her mother, she essentially staged a sit-in.
“I sat there (at the office) for two weeks, every day. And then after two weeks, a man came out of his office and said, ‘Come here.’ And he asked me ‘why do you want the job?’ I said, ‘I like the uniforms.’ And I said, ‘And I like people.’ And so I got the job.”
That would have been around 1944. Angela also told Winfrey that her mother kept a watchful eye on the brand-new streetcar conductor when she began her first run every morning:
She would drive me out to the beach, and she would have her pistol on the seat of the car, and she would follow the streetcar all the way from the beach to the Ferry Building, right through San Francisco, and back again out to the beach, until daybreak. I mean, stayed close so that nobody got on that she didn’t see. …
Muni said last year that “anecdotal evidence we’ve gathered over the years indicate several African-Americans found employment on the streetcars a little earlier than Dr. Angelou,” but added that that didn’t diminish the 16-year-old’s accomplishment in getting the job. Here is Muni’s link to Angelou’s story, complete with a video of the “Oprah” appearance: “Maya Angelou and the Market Street Railway.”
In her interview with Belva Davis, Angelou declared she had a firm notion of life’s cardinal virtue:
I owe it to another to say what I’ve learned. I think each one of us lives in direct relation to the heroes and sheroes we have, always and in all ways. And you have to have enough courage to be a hero/shero. Courage is the most important of all the virtues, because without courage you can’t practice any of the other virtues consistently; you can be anything erratically — kind, fair, true, generous, blah, blah, blah. But to be that thing time after time, you have to have courage.