Celebrating Black voices: Here's a look back at Dr. Maya Angelou's Bay Area connection, legacy

Tuesday, February 2, 2021
Here's look back at Maya Angelou's Bay Area connection, legacy
As millions of Americans clung to the poem flowing from National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman during President Joe Biden's inauguration, it was hard not to draw connections to a scene in that same spot decades earlier.

OAKLAND, Calif. (KGO) -- As millions of Americans clung to the poem flowing from National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman during President Joe Biden's inauguration, it was hard not to draw connections to a scene in that same spot decades earlier.

In 1993, Dr. Maya Angelou became the first female inaugural poet in U.S. presidential history. In Gorman's words, "If you can't see it. It's hard to become it."

"I think its beautifully poetic the way their work weaves together, but also the impact it has had just on our community at large," said Nia McAllister, public programs manager at the Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD).

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This interest ignited a dive into Dr. Angelou's complex and inspiring life story. A few of her chapters were spent in San Francisco. Born Marguerite Johnson, Angelou, had a difficult childhood. She was raped at seven in St. Louis. Her abuser was killed and that caused Angelou to stop talking. In her silence, she read poetry. During World War II, she was sent to family in Arkansas, and eventually Oakland for a short time and then San Francisco.

"It was here where she started going to school," McAllister said. "She went to the California Labor School in San Francisco and that's where she really started getting into art. She studied dance and acting. We know Maya for her writing and poetry, but she was hugely accomplished."

At 15, in her summer off from George Washington High School, Angelou wanted a job.

"Working on transit vehicles in San Francisco was always a White man's job," said Rick Laubscher, president of the Market Street Railway Company. "There was racism and there was sexism."

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In her 1969 awarding-winning autobiography "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" Angelou wrote, "The thought of sailing up and down the hills of San Francisco in a dark blue uniform, with a money changer at my belt, caught my fancy." In other words, she wanted to be a streetcar conductor and she thought it was cool.

In a 2013 Super Soul Sunday interview with Oprah Winfrey, Angelou said, "I went back to my mother and said they wouldn't even allow me to apply. She asked me if I knew why. I said, 'Yes, because I'm a Negro." She said, 'Yes, but do you want the job?' I said, Yes. She said go get it."

With persistence, Angelou became San Francisco's first Black female streetcar conductor.

"Her mother did not think it was safe," Laubscher said. "So, her mother followed in her family automobile on her first run of the day when it was still dark so that her daughter would feel safer. It really is an exceptional story of fighting racism and sexism."

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Her words were often simple and always powerful.

Angelou would later sing calypso and blues at the Purple Onion, and then became a civil rights activist, educator, one the world's most celebrated writers and so much more.

Angelou found faith and made Glide Memorial her church home and beloved Reverend Cecil Williams her friend.

Lava Thomas, a San Francisco artist, was selected to create a monument in front of the San Francisco Public Library that embodies all of these elements of Angelou.

"It's an incredible honor, but also an awe-inspiring responsibility," Thomas said.

RELATED: What is Black History Month, and why is it important?

This February, we are celebrating the accomplishments of Black Americans during Black History Month.

Thomas' non-traditional design was approved by officials, rejected and then reinstated. It's a separate story involving race, art, and equity.

"That journey for me speaks to the enduring power of Maya Angelou's legacy and the fact that the monument will embody those principles through that journey to me is profound," Thomas said.

Thomas has designed a 9-foot tall bronze book that on one side will read these words from Angelou.

"Information helps you to see that you're not alone. That there's somebody in Mississippi and somebody in Tokyo who all have wept, who all have longed and lost, who've all been happy. So the library helps you to see, not only that you are not alone, but that you are really not any different from everyone else. There may be details that are different, but a human being is a human being," Thomas added.

Thomas told ABC7 News, while the monument is rooted in Black art and aesthetics, it's also grounded in Angelou's insistence of shared humanity. It is a message desperately needed in our deeply divided world today.