Maya Angelou's death felt deeply in the Bay Area

ByKatie Marzullo, Amy Hollyfield, and Carolyn Tyler KGO logo
Thursday, May 29, 2014
In this Nov. 21, 2008 file photo, poet Maya Angelou smiles at an event in Washington. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, File)
In this Nov. 21, 2008 file photo, poet Maya Angelou smiles at an event in Washington. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, File)

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- The world is mourning the death of author and poet Maya Angelou. The icon died Wednesday at the age of 86 in North Carolina. She rose from poverty, segregation and violence to become a force for civil rights and change.

Her poetic words broke through barriers in life and in literature. Angelou worked at many things in life, she was a writer, a poet, a dancer and an actress. In fact, as a teenager, she studied dance and drama in San Francisco. She says, at age 16, she became the city's first African American street car conductor. She told Oprah it wasn't an easy job to get, but she didn't take no for an answer.

"I sat there because I was afraid to go home. I was afraid to tell my mother that I wasn't as strong as she thought I was, so I sat there for two weeks, every day," said Angelou. "I went back to my mother and said they won't even give me an application because I'm Negro. And she said, do you want the job? Go get it."

But impressing her mother wasn't her only motivation.

"I loved the uniform, so I said, that's the job I want," said Angelou.

By her mid-20s, she was signing calypso and blues at the Purple Onion in San Francisco.

Her successes were born out of a painful past. She was raised by her grandmother in Arkansas, about 25 miles away from a town called Hope.

"I was terribly hurt in this town," said Angelou.

At 7-years-old, she was raped by her mother's boyfriend. She told on him and he was subsequently killed. She didn't speak a single word for the next five and a half years.

"I had voice, but I refused to use it," said Angelou.

But once she opened her mouth, the words flowed beautifully. She wrote several autobiographies, short stories and collections of poetry, including 'All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes,' 'The Heart of a Woman' and 'I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.'

In 1993, at President Bill Clinton's request, Angelou wrote a poem for his inauguration.

"Lift up your eyes upon this day breaking for you, give birth again to the dream, women children men, take it into the palms of your hands," said Angelou.

She was a poet, historian, and a civil rights activist. In 1985 she appeared at an anti-apartheid rally in Berkeley.

"Really why we are marching, is for our own moral health," she said.

For Reverend Cecil Williams of San Francisco's Glide Memorial Church and his wife Janice Mirikatani, Angelou was more than an icon, she was a friend.

"We began a conversation and immediately began to call each other brother and sister," said Rev. Williams. "So I felt like and feel like Maya was my sister."

They met 50 years ago and she considered Glide one of her churches, appearing there dozens of times.

"It's not like Maya just spoke," Mirikitani said. "It's like Maya sang. She sang and she danced with her words, it was wonderful."

The years of friendship are so full of precious moments -- it's tough to pick out the highlights. Reverend Williams officiated at Angelou's three weddings. Williams, along with other celebrities like Oprah, attended Angelou's 85th birthday, Angelou also wrote the forward to a book that Williams and his wife wrote and she pushed Mirikatani to become a poet. When Glide celebrated its 50th anniversary, Angelou was too frail to attend, but sent a video tribute.

Williams says Angelou had an enormous impact on his life and will continue to do so.

"She gave me strength, she gave me great love, she gave me a sense of knowing I had her on my side," said Williams.

It was at one of those Glide appearances that Elaine Petrocelli met Maya Angelou. They became friends and Petrocelli often hosted the author at her store, Book Passage, in Corte Madera. On Wednesday, they put the distinguished author's books out front to honor her memory.

"She had tremendous energy," said Petrocelli. "Literally a thousand people would come and want to have their book signed by Dr. Angelou and be able to meet her. It was truly phenomenal."

Her loss was also felt at the White House. President Obama released a statement calling Angelou "One of the brightest lights of our time." The president said she inspired his mother so much, his younger sister named Maya is named after her. He also said, "The voice she found helped generations of Americans find their rainbow amidst the clouds and inspired the rest of us to be our best selves."