Tag Archives: streetcar

The DC Women Streetcar Operators of World War II

20 Mar
Women Operators in Superintendent's Office: 1943

Women operators at the superintendent’s office in 1943.

By Craig Simpson

In December, 1942, the Capital Transit Company began a series of advertisements in wartime Washington, D.C. newspapers seeking women to operate the city’s streetcars and buses.

African Americans and their allies were demanding that the company end its Jim Crow practices and hire black operators, but the owners instead opened the door a crack to white women.

Women Workers Converge on D.C.

During the first year of World War II, many thousands of men left their jobs and entered the armed forces while tens of thousands of women moved into Washington to work in the rapidly expanding federal city and fill many jobs traditionally held by men.

The District was not a blue-collar town, but women quickly began turning out ships’ guns at the Naval Gun Factory and driving trucks. They also filled the jobs of store and bank clerks that had been traditionally held by men. But most of all, they came to join the federal government’s rapidly burgeoning clerical corps.

A Woman Operating DC Streetcar: 1943

Collecting a fare on a DC Streetcar in 1943.

The Capital Transit Company was desperate. The company adamantly refused to consider hiring African Americans, even though streetcars and buses lay idle in the barns and yards for lack of operators. While women had driven buses for some smaller suburban companies and operated streetcars in a few other cities, none had ever been employed as operators in the biggest transit company in the Washington area.

The same week that the federal Fair Employment Practices Commission issued a preliminary order to Capital Transit to hire African American operators, the company began its advertising for women workers.

Recruiting women, however, was going to be no easy matter. The new workers were required to work split shifts covering both rush hours and there were plenty of other help-wanted ads filling the newspapers.  The company also imposed other restrictions. The openly biased Washington Post wrote,

The last bastion of male drivers in the District has fallen before the assault of the gentler sex, but the hands that guide the trolleys down the track must not be too gentle. It’s Amazons, not Veronica Lakes, who’ll qualify according to the specifications. Applicants must be between 25 and 35 years old, at least 5 feet, 5 inches tall without shoes, and–listen to this, you dieters—must weigh at least 130 pounds or more.

First Women Hired

Betty Whitehurst and Dorothy Berlett became the first women trainees on January 6, 1943. Capital Transit’s plan was to first train them as conductors, then streetcar operators, and later, perhaps, on the buses.

At the same time, pressure was building on the company to provide adequate transportation in the federal city. Milton Diehl of the Office of Defense Transportation, said, “We want to keep the transportation system going here in Washington and I think it is awfully serious when 200 buses are idle because there are not enough men to operate them.”

Capital Transit President E. D. Merrill: 1940

Capital Transit president E. D. Merrill (far right)  in 1940. Courtesy of the DC Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

Capital Transit president E. D. Merrill sought other means besides integration, and he called for draft deferrals for the men operating streetcars. He said up to 600 new workers would be needed to maintain the level of service the company was attempting to provide.

Plans to use women, however, were dealt a blow when both of the initial trainees quit only two weeks into the training program. Whitehurst dropped out when she and her husband, who was also an operator, decided one member of the family working odd hours was enough. Berlett’s Navy husband was transferred to New Orleans and the couple decided to relocate.

Company Renews Commitment

Capital Transit, under intense fire from advocacy groups and from the federal Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC) for its racial policies, was determined to make the women’s program work.

The Washington Post reported,

Undiscouraged by the recent defaulting of its two pioneer women bus drivers, the Capital Transit Co. is still training its Amazonian operators, a company official disclosed last night. As a matter of fact, two of the girl graduates are already getting experience as conductors on the Fourteenth Street streetcar lines during the afternoon rush hours while three others are immersed in the academic courses. Enrollment in the streetcar seminary is light, but the transit company still approves the idea and is welcoming possible freshmen to the ranks.

The company tried to entice women to apply for the jobs by offering Sundays off and prohibiting night work by women. This was in contrast to previous new hires who would be at the bottom of the seniority list and end up with the least desirable days off and hours.

First All-Female DC Streetcar Crew: 1943

Edna Cobb & Bessie Allison are the first all-female streetcar crew. Courtesy of the DC Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

Women soon began going out unaccompanied by trainers on streetcar and bus lines. On April 8, 1943 two women left the Fourteenth Street barn and headed to the Bureau of Engraving as the first all-female trolley crew in the city. Bessie Allison piloted the vehicle while Edna Cobb served as conductor.

Allison came to Washington from Mullen, West Virginia, where she had been assistant manager of a dairy store. Cobb became a spokesperson for the women transit workers during the war years, attempting to recruit more women to the ranks.

Women’s Auxiliary Transit (WATS)

In May 1943, company president Merrill announced the formation of the Women’s Auxiliary Transit Service (WATS) and an ambitious plan to recruit 100 women a week to the group. The group was modeled after the initially civilian Army WAC and Navy WAVE programs and was designed to promote the idea of women temporarily serving in essential wartime transportation in the city.

Join Capital Transit WATS: 1943

WATS advertisement in June 1943.

When it was first formed, WATS was composed of seven streetcar operators, two bus operators, and five in training, plus 19 fare collectors at the Pentagon. Merrill began promoting his idea to recruit more women with regular advertisements in the city’s newspapers appealing to patriotism.

Before long, Merrill hired a women’s counselor to head the group and recruited a panel of Washington, D.C. business and professional women to form a “Women’s Committee to Sponsor the WATS.”

The Committee opened a lounge for the transit women at 4702 14th Street NW, across the street from the Northern streetcar and bus barn. It was dedicated with a housewarming party on July 13, 1943. By this time there were 16 women streetcar and bus operators and 19 conductors. All the women were assigned to the 14th Street streetcar line or the buses in that section of Northwest Washington that operated out of the Northern barn, although later they operated out of other locations as well.

Transit Women Between Shifts: 1943

Women operators between shifts in 1943.

The lounge was equipped with three rooms and a basement for the women’s exclusive use. The rooms contained easy chairs, a radio, a Ping-Pong table and reading material.

The women had the option to wear skirts or slacks at work. The slacks, skirts and blazers were navy blue, the shirts were grey and the ties were black. Operators’ caps had a visor whereas the fare collectors at the Pentagon wore foldable “overseas” caps.

The Women Operators and Conductors

Among these women was Ruth Rautio. She had been a homemaker until joining her husband who was already a streetcar operator. The two worked the same streetcar line, passing each other several times during the day.

Bus operator Elsie Stone reported few problems with customers who she said had grown used to seeing women on the trolleys and buses. “But once in Petworth a man ran real fast to catch the bus and backed right out when he saw me driving,” according to the Washington Post.

A Woman Conductor Washington DC: 1943

Hattie Sheehan in 1943.

Another was Hattie Sheehan, who had worked three months on the midnight shift at the Glen L. Martin Aircraft factory north of Baltimore. Sheehan decided day work was more appealing and moved to Washington to take a streetcar operator job. Sheehan’s sister, Eva Bennet, joined her on the job. The two were originally from Harrisonburg, Virginia.

The most senior operator was Bessie Allison, who had a strong West Virginia accent. “I’m a hillbilly and don’t mind who knows it. But I’m having a lot of fun running streetcars in Washington,” she said, according to the Washington Post.

A Woman Outside Her DC Streetcar: 1943

Frances Lewis in 1943.

Still another was Frances “Tennessee” Lewis, who came from Chattanooga, Tennessee. Valeria Schwalenberg hailed from Greensboro, N.C. She said operating a streetcar was “awfully exciting” compared with her life back home, according to the Post.

Sheehan, Allison, Lewis and Schwalenberg formed a quartet that sang songs learned from childhood. One song that everyone knew was “I’ve been working on the railroad,” according to Sheehan. She added, “It sure is a good theme song for us,” according to the Post.

African American Fired

Sarah Grayson was hired in September, 1943 and worked without incident as a streetcar operator on 14th Street NW until January 31, 1944, when she was summarily fired.

100 Women Operators Needed: 1943

Capital Transit refused to hire African American men or women and fired one woman after she had worked five months when they discovered she was black.

The company rejected the application of an African American neighbor of Grayson’s because of skin color. The applicant reportedly told the company representative, “I don’t see why you can’t hire me when you have a colored girl working for you,” according to the Afro American.

Grayson, who had light skin and blue eyes, told the Afro, “I made no effort to conceal my identity.  The question just never came up.” Grayson had previously been a clerk at a People’s Drug Store.

Grayson told the Afro that it was amusing when her male coworkers would try to chat her up while making derogatory remarks about African Americans [See an image of Grayson: click on “browse this newspaper” and navigate to the February 5, 1944 edition, page 11].

Shortages Continue to Occur

The operator shortages continued to occur throughout 1944 with the company delaying, making excuses, but not outright refusing to hire African Americans. Throughout this time, the FEPC never acted to enforce an order to desegregate transit in Washington.

Appeal for More Women Operators: 1943

Operator Edna Cobb (center) often acted as a recruiter of women. Courtesy of the DC Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

Apparently believing they could recruit more (white) women by a makeover of the current operators, Capital Transit opened a “charm school” in May, 1944, for the 55 women streetcar and bus operators. Classes taught make-up, hair styling and skin care. Hannah Sherman, school director, said, “We don’t want any you-hooing on buses and streetcars, but we want to make the girls feel pretty and important,” according to the Post.

By February of 1945, the company had 150 buses idled for lack of drivers and was 450 operators short. Still refusing to hire African-Americans, the company began advertising for both men and women part-time operators. The number of women peaked at about 70 after the introduction of part-time employment.

Post World War II

The war in Europe ended in May and in Japan in September.  Post-war propaganda had already begun calling for women to “return to the home.” Merrill estimated that only 25 women remained as operators or conductors at the end of 1945.

Operator Speaks Out at Union Meeting: 1945

Streetcar operator Thelma Hodges speaks at a union meeting during a 1945 strike. Courtesy of the DC Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

Wages had been held down during the war and the pent up demand resulted in two unauthorized strikes by Capital Transit workers in November 1945. Thelma Hodges, a streetcar operator, told co-workers at the Turner Arena during a strike meeting that “The men ought to make enough pay so their wives could stay home.”

No additional women were hired after World War II ended. By 1948 there were only ten remaining women operators. When streetcar operator Harriet Smith died in September, six of the remaining women acted as pallbearers wearing their Capital Transit uniforms. The six were Bernice Harding, Elizabeth Mann, Martha Blanton, Ethel Drake, Katherine Snyder and Mary Small.

Last of the DC Streetcar Women Operators: 1961

Last of the D.C. WW2 women streetcar operators (2nd row) in 1961. From ATU Local 689.

In 1955, Capital Transit finally desegregated its operator ranks. The company was sold after a two-month strike later in 1955 and it was renamed D.C. Transit.

Two women can be seen in a 1961 group photo of D.C. Transit operators in front of the U.S. Capitol, but by 1962 streetcar service had ended in the nation’s capital–and with it, women transit operators.  By one account, the few remaining women streetcar operators were offered the choice of clerical jobs or retirement.

First Female Bus Operator for DC Transit: 1967

Sarah Owens, first African American woman bus operator hired by D.C. Transit is shown in a screen capture of a 2007 ATU Local 689 video.

After a six-year interlude, the next woman employed as an operator by the D.C. Transit system was Sarah B. Owens, an African American. Owens was turned away at the company employment office in 1966, but filed a complaint with the District government. A year later Owens began her career as a bus operator in June 1967. Owens went on to operate the Metrorail trains as well after that service began in 1976.

This time, employment of women in the D.C. transit industry grew rapidly.  Today hundreds of women operate buses and trains for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, the successor company to the D.C. Transit and Capital Transit companies.


Want to see and read more?

For more images related to the World War II era D.C. women transit operators.

For an article on the desegregation of the Capital Transit Company.

Do you know more about these women? Comment below or e-mail us at washington_area_spark@yahoo.com


Author’s Notes:

Sources include The Washington Daily News, The Washington Star, the Washington Post, The Afro American, and Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689.


Craig Simpson is a former Secretary-Treasurer of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 and has a BA in labor studies from the National Labor College. He can be contacted by email at washington_area_spark@yahoo.com.


The Fight Against Capital Transit’s Jim Crow Hiring: 1941-55

14 Oct
Thousands rally for Capital Transit Jobs: 1943 (Photo 17)

Hundreds rally in Franklin Park May 7, 1943 against Capital Transit’s refusal to hire African-American streetcar and bus operators. Photo by Paul M. Schmick, courtesy DC Library, Washington Star Collection ©Washington Post.

by Craig Simpson

In 1941, a group of predominantly young African American activists organized to take on the challenge of integrating one of the most visible examples of job discrimination in the city:  The Washington, DC Capital Transit public transportation system.

The 15-year campaign went through a period of highs and lows as the company, aided at times by the union representing its workers and the federal government, stubbornly clung to its racist practices before finally succumbing in 1955.

Background

The District of Columbia never had Jim Crow seating on public transit (unlike neighboring Maryland and Virginia) dating back to fights Sojourner Truth and Sen. Charles Sumner waged in the 1860s, but almost everything else in Washington, DC was segregated, including schools, parks, swimming pools, movie theaters and restaurants. Perhaps even more important, good paying jobs were reserved for white men only, with few exceptions.

Prior to the US entry into World War II, a rapid expansion of the government and the related defense industry was bringing an end to the Great Depression.

Jewel Mazique: A founder of the Capital Transit Fight (Photo 1)

Jewel Mazique, a founder of the Capital Transit campaign, at a United Federal Workers meeting in 1942. Photo by John Collier, courtesy of the Library of Congress.

A Phillip Randolph and Bayard Rustin (leading African American members of the Socialist Party) organized a “March on Washington” movement to demand desegregation of government and defense jobs scheduled for July 1, 1941.  President Franklin Roosevelt tried desperately to head off the march and ultimately created a federal Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC) with oversight of the defense industry in return for cancellation of the march.

Following this development, a local campaign to desegregate employment spearheaded by a dynamic group of young African American activists who set up a “Washington Initiating Committee” of the National Conference on Negro Youth in the city in October 1941.  The group initially planned to use direct pressure on companies and federal agencies.

Key participants included Thelma Dale (Washington Negro Youth Federation), Marie Richardson (United Transport Service Employees Union-Red Caps), Henry Thomas (United Construction Workers Organizing Committee) and Jewel Mazique (Delta Sigma Theta), all of whom became prominent African American organizers in the city.

Initial Campaign

The group selected as its first target the Capital Transit Company that provided streetcar and bus service throughout the District.  The company refused to hire African Americans as operators with the management citing rampant racial prejudice in the city as an excuse.  As many as 20% of the workforce were African Americans employed in the maintenance section of the company, but were concentrated in unskilled and semi-skilled jobs.

The committee began by soliciting letters to the company by the local NAACP and other organizations.  Foreshadowing the Montgomery bus boycott by a dozen years, sixty workers at the Cook’s Waste Paper Factory at 59 Pierce Street NE added their disapproval and agreed to take any action necessary, including walking to work.

Company president E. D. Merrill responded with a flat-out refusal to consider breaking the barrier and his response triggered a stepped up campaign.  The group continued to gain endorsement of its goals and in April 1942, the campaign was given another boost when Walter White, national secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) condemned Capital Transit’s hiring policies.

In August, Amalgamated Association of Street & Electric Railway Employees Division 689 president J. G. Bigelow sought and received a letter from the union’s International president W. D Mahon that restated the union’s policy against discrimination. Bigelow, considered a moderate on racial issues by the standards of the times, defeated old guard president William F. Sims in 1940.

Mahon’s letter concluded, “I realize how some of your membership, being Southerners, feel on this mater, but you must take into consideration the fact that we are now engaged in a war in which the colored man is called upon to do the same line of duty that the white man is called upon to do, and any discrimination that would attract public attention at this time would be very detrimental, and especially coming out of Washington.”

The Fight Broadens

Fighting Jim Crow at Capital Transit: 1942 (Photo 2)

Committee on Jobs for Negroes in Public Utilities Dec. 1942.William S. Johnson, chair (center) & Ralph Matthews from the Afro (leaning over).  All rights reserved © Afro-American.

The issue began to take on national importance as African American newspapers across the country began covering the issue.

A broader group was organized August 15, 1942 as The Committee on Jobs for Negroes in Public Utilities by its chair, William S. Johnson (Hotel & Restaurant Employees Local 209) and other local African American union leaders and activists.

The committee set up shop at 2001 11th Street NW (currently occupied by a branch of the Industrial Bank) after initially holding meetings at the offices of the Afro-American and the International Workers Order.

Sponsors were solicited that included both local and national representatives ranging from Charles Hamilton Houston (former NAACP counsel), Ralph Matthews (Baltimore Afro-American), Mary McLeod Bethune (National Council of Negro Women) to Communist Party members like Doxey Wilkerson.  Several members of Congress were also sponsors of the committee.

The broader committee shifted strategy and began organizing to pressure the federal FEPC to take action against Capital Transit and force the company to desegregate.

The expansion of government meant thousands of new workers in the city at a time when young men were being drafted into the armed forces.  This resulted in a shortage of streetcar and bus operators and Capital Transit advertised daily for new operators.  This provided an opening that the committee exploited by taking out a large advertisement in the Washington Post calling for the hiring of “qualified negro operators” and for a mass meeting Nov. 3, 1942.

Crowd at Rally for Integrating Capital Transit 1942 (Photo 10)

Hundreds rally to demand Capital Transit hire African American streetcar & bus operators, Nov. 3, 1942. Photo by Gordon Parks, courtesy of the Library of Congress

The meeting was timed to precede hearings on Capital Transit hiring policies by the FEPC. Hundreds came out to hear Rev. Adam Clayton Powell (then city councilman in New York City), Houston (then in private practice) and Henry Rhine of the Washington Industrial Council, CIO and others speak at the Vermont Avenue Baptist Church, 1630 Vermont Ave. NW.

The FEPC held hearings Nov. 23 and issued an order Nov. 30 that Capital Transit bring its policies into compliance with federal guidelines. The company president E. D. Merrill again responded that the time wasn’t right because company operations could be disrupted.

However, on February 1, 1943 the company hired Bernard Simmons, an African American, as a streetcar trainee. When Simmons was assigned to the Benning Road barn (Trinidad Division once located at 15th & Benning Road NE) for on-the-job training, a white operator refused to train him. Fifteen other white operators threatened to turn in their traps (quit working), according to the company. The company offered Simmons a janitorial job and when he refused, they fired him.

Meanwhile, to address the shortage of operators, the company began training white women to operate streetcars and shortly afterwards put them into service.

Streetcar operators relaxing on the steps of Capital Transit’s Northern Division in June 1943

Women streetcar operators shown at 14th St. barn, June, 1943. Photo by Esther Bubley, courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The committee renewed its offensive in the spring of 1943 with a week of action beginning May 3 in advance of a new FEPC hearings scheduled later in the month.  The week began by picketing the company headquarters at 3600 M Street NW with a “blue ribbon” group of prominent national leaders.

Other pickets were set up at busy intersections throughout the city and thousands of buttons that read, “I support” were also distributed (see offsite photos of Jewel Mazique leading pickets at 14th & NY Ave. and the protest march in the Afro-American newspaper archives. Click on “World Mourns King” icon on right of the page, then click on “Browse this Newspaper,” then navigate to May 15 1943, pages 1 & 13).

The wartime “March on Washington,” led by an Elks band, was held May 7th beginning at 10th & U St. NW and ending at Franklin Park (14th & I St NW).  Estimates of the crowd ranged from 800 by police to 3,500 by the Afro-American newspaper.

March for Capital Transit Jobs: 1943 (Photo 16)

Marching for hiring African American streetcar & bus operators, May 7, 1943. Photo by Paul Schmick, courtesy DC Library, Washington Star Collection ©Washington Post.

Marchers heard Rep. Vito Marcantonio (ALP-NY) declare, “If colored people…can drive tanks right into the heart of battle in Tunisia, they can drive streetcars and buses here.”  On Sunday, May 9 over 100 black and white ministers at congregations across the city condemned the company’s hiring policies in their sermons.

Although they didn’t know it, the decision to rely solely on pressuring the federal government would prove to be flawed.

Fair Employment Commission Stalls

The FEPC postponed the May 18 hearing after a challenge was made to its jurisdiction over Capital Transit. In July the full FEPC voted to tell the company that they “expected affirmative action” to end discrimination and would call a public hearing August 9 if the company did not comply. The company continued to stall while the FEPC tried to negotiate.

In January 1944, the company discovered it had hired an African American woman, Sarah Grayson of 2231 Ontario Road NW. It promptly fired her, despite her five months of unblemished service (See offsite photo of Grayson in the Afro-American newspaper. Click on “World Mourns King” icon on right of the page, then click on “Browse this Newspaper,” then navigate to Feb. 5, 1944, page 11).

“I made no effort to conceal my racial identity. The question just never came up,” Grayson said, according to the Afro-American.

Grayson found it amusing that her co-workers would make disparaging remarks about African Americans while trying to talk her into a date. She was discovered when a neighbor applied for a job at the company and was turned down. According to the Afro newspaper, the neighbor allegedly told the company, “I don’t see why you can’t hire me when you have a colored girl working for you.”

Hopes were raised in 1944 by two events, the integration of operators at the Philadelphia transit system at gunpoint by the federal government and the appointment of Houston to the federal FEPC.

Under orders by the FEPC, the Philadelphia Transportation Company began promoting African Americans to operators. In August 1944, white operators staged a seven-day wildcat strike protesting the promotions. Philadelphia contained vital defense plants and the federal government seized the company, ordered strikers back to work and threatened to strip any men refusing of the draft deferments and job availability certificates for the duration of WW II and backed it up with the US Army.

The Capital Transit management continued to stall—never outright refusing, continuing to “negotiate,” but never implementing any change. Meanwhile, in December 1944, Sims, campaigning against the possibility of African American operators, regained the presidency of the transit union by defeating Bigelow.

President Roosevelt died in April 1945 and vice president Harry Truman became president. As WWII drew to a close, the FEPC would also terminate with the end of the war and a campaign was undertaken to make the FEPC permanent.

(See offsite photo of Marie Richardson picketing for a permanent FEPC in the Afro-American newspaper. Click on “World Mourns King” icon on right of the page, then click on “Browse this Newspaper,” then navigate to Feb. 2, 1946, page 24).

Houston Quits in Protest of Truman Inaction

Truman refuses to Act on Capital Transit; Houston Resigns from FEPC: 1945 (Photo 20)

Charles Hamilton Houston quits FEPC & blasts Truman for halting Capital Transit desegregation.  Dec. 8, 1945 Chicago Defender.

When Capital Transit workers staged wildcat strikes twice in 1945 over wage disputes, an opportunity presented itself to enforce the FEPC order.  Truman ordered the seizure of the company November 21 to enforce arbitration of the wage issue.  Houston drafted a directive to enforce the FEPC order to integrate the company while it was under federal control, but Truman countermanded it.

Houston was incredulous and demanded an explanation.  When none was forthcoming, he resigned blasting Truman for maintaining, “…a persistent course of conduct on the part of the Administration to give lip service to the matter of eliminating discrimination in employment on account of race, creed, color or national origin since V-J (Victory in Japan) day, while doing nothing substantial to make the policy effective.”

The company had perhaps understood politics better than the protestors. Truman believed he needed support of southern Democrats and Washington, DC was not Philadelphia.  Despite Truman’s mild support of a permanent FEPC, it was filibustered in the US Senate and died.

Red Scare Decimates Local Leaders

The next blow to Capital Transit integration came with the anti-labor, anti-communist Taft-Harley law in 1947 and the burgeoning “red scare” that began with Truman’s “Federal Employee Loyalty Program” in 1947 and continued through House and Senate hearings on the Communist Party where those named were accused of disloyalty and had their names and addresses published in newspapers.  The McCarren Internal Security Act followed in 1950.  Prosecutions began under the resurrected 1940 Smith Act.

The District of Columbia African American labor leaders and their unions that had been the backbone of the push to integrate Capital Transit were put on the defensive.  The Cafeteria Workers union waged an eleven-week strike against Government Services Incorporated (GSI-a federal government-sponsored corporation  that operated a majority of  federal cafeterias) because GSI refused to bargain with a “red” union.  They survived, but the president of their union, Richard A. Bancroft, resigned instead of signing a Taft-Hartley oath renouncing the Communist Party.

The United Public Workers (formerly United Federal Workers)  union was expelled from the Congress of Industrial Organizations for “red” leadership and ultimately fell apart.  Henry Thomas, president of the Laborer’s Local 74 AFL, turned on his allies and denounced them before Congress in an attempt to keep his leadership of the union.  He was ultimately defeated anyway in the mid 1950s.

Doxey Wilkerson, chair of the transit week of action in 1943, was ostracized and Committee on Jobs for Negros in Public Utilities chairman William S. Johnson, who was also president of Hotel & Restaurant Local 209 AFL, was expelled by the national union  for allegedly being a “red.”

Marie Richardson, another founder of the movement and former secretary of the District National Negro Congress and one of the first African American woman to hold a national office in a labor union (United Federal Workers) was ultimately jailed for over four years—convicted with the help of Thomas’s testimony.  Her crime was lying on a federal application for a clerk’s position.

These casualties were the tip of the iceberg.  The cumulative effect of the anti-labor and anti-communist campaign of the late 1940s and early 1950s on the Capital Transit effort was to rob the movement of its organizers and base.

The broader effect was to decapitate progressive African American leadership among blue-collar workers in the District.  It wasn’t until the black power movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s that new leaders demanding social change began to arise in the workplace.

Effort Limps Along 1948-53

The remaining civil rights movement in the District concentrated on desegregating other facilities including theaters, cafeterias, parks and schools relegating the Capital Transit issue to the back burner.

However, the NAACP, Americans for Democratic Action, a now marginalized Communist Party and other activists continued to raise the issue at Capital Transit fare increase hearings before the District Public Utilities Commission from 1948-53. The Washington Afro-American also kept the issue alive through its columns and news stories.

The transit management continued to sing the same song that white workers would strike or quit and service disruptions would occur.

Background Conditions Changing for Company & Union

In 1949, financier Louis Wolfson bought Capital transit from the North American Co. that had resisted hiring black operators.  The sale was forced by a Supreme Court decision because North American also owned the Potomac Electric Power Company.

Transit Union Head Confronts Change: 1954 (Photo 21)

Walter Bierwagen (front row with dark suit holding gavel), president of the transit union, shown in an undated photo. Courtesy of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689, all rights reserved.

In 1950, Walter J. Bierwagen, one of the leaders of the 1945 wildcat strikes, defeated Sims for president of the local transit union. Bierwagen was not a radical, but campaigned to unify the union.  In 1951, he led a three-day strike that secured seniority rights during work reductions for maintenance employees.

In doing so, he earned the support of African American union members who were often laid-off in the post WWII period when transit was contracting despite having more seniority than white co-workers, according to contemporary union accounts.

And the tide was beginning to turn in the District on civil rights.

In 1953, the Baltimore Transit Company 30 miles north of Washington, hired its first African American operators.

In 1953, Washington, DC downtown movie theaters and restaurants began desegregating and parks and recreation facilities followed in 1954.

On May 17, 1954 the US Supreme Court ruled that the District’s segregated schools were unconstitutional in the Bowling vs. Sharpe decision. The Court handed it down on the same day as the famous Brown vs. Board of Education decision.

The Die Was Now Cast

The Capital Transit case had become an embarrassment to leading liberals. Members of the Senate District Subcommittee, Senators Wayne Morse (I-OR), J. Glenn Beall (R-MD) and Frederick Payne (R-ME), lashed out at the Capital Transit Company and the union at a September 1954 hearing.

“It is intolerable that the largest transit company operating in the Nation’s Capital, which carries thousands of Negroes daily on its runs should refuse to hire Negro platform workers,” a committee report declared.

The Afro-American newspaper conducted a survey of white operators and found only two out of 60 polled opposed hiring African Americans.

The Public Utilities Commission hosted a series of talks between the company, the union, the Urban League and representatives of the President’s Commission on Contracts to resolve the issue.

Bierwagen was now at the crossroads. Up until this point, he had taken the position that the union had nothing to do with hiring and accepted into its ranks anyone that the company hired. He testified on several occasions that while the union would oppose any type of job action, he expected the men would react.

His hands-off stance did not sit well with his African American supporters in the union. Bierwagen also faced what he likely considered bigger problems than the hiring of black operators.

The Capital Transit owner, Louis Wolfson, had bought the company in 1949 for $2 million and then quickly paid out $3 million in dividends to himself. Service was declining and Wolfson was claiming the company was broke and demanding fare increases from the Public Utilities Commission. Facing these conditions, Bierwagen’s union had a labor contract that was expiring in July 1955.

Public opinion was solidly against Wolfson, but without a resolution of the African American operator issue, the public could turn against the union.

Union Votes in Favor of Integration

Union Member John Bryan Describes Desegregation Decision: 1954-55 (Photo 22)

Union member John Bryan shown in 1949 with Georgia Ave./7th St. streetcar. Courtesy of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689, all rights reserved.

John Bryan, a union ally of Bierwagen’s, said in a 2007 interview that Bierwagen agreed during the Public Utilities Commission meetings to get union support for integration and the management in turn agreed to promote African American maintenance workers to streetcar and bus operator positions before hiring off the street.

At the December 1954 union executive board meeting, “Bierwagen got a 5-3 vote” in favor on the executive board and had a voice vote at the next union meeting [January 4, 1955], according to Bryan. “A lot of fellows said that the nays had it, but Bierwagen banged the gavel and ruled the vote was in favor,” Bryan added.

On January 13, 1955 an agreement was announced that Capital Transit would initially promote African American applicants from within the maintenance department and the company would also begin to hire new operators from the street. Victor Daly from the US Labor Department was to review and select the first applicants from within the company. Bierwagen pledged the full cooperation of the union.

By March 1955 Robert S. Pettigrew was operating a bus and James Richard Russell was operating a streetcar. There were no work stoppages.

The struggle didn’t end there as District activist Julius Hobson threatened a bus boycott to increase African American hiring in 1962. There were long battles to integrate departments and diversify management within the company. However, the first Metrorail operator in 1976 was an African American, William “Pop” Saunders. In 1983 the union elected its first African American president, James M. Thomas Jr. The same year Carmen Turner, an African American woman, was selected Acting General Manager of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA, often called Metro), a successor company to Capital Transit.

Robert Pettigrew: First African American Bus Operator for Capital Transit: 1955 (Photo 24)

Robert Pettigrew (2nd row with glasses), the first African American knowingly hired by Capital Transit as a bus operator, 1955. Image cropped from a 1961 group photo. Courtesy of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689, all rights reserved.

James Russell: First African American Streetcar Operator for Capital Transit: 1955 (Photo 25)

James Russell, the first African American knowingly hired by Capital Transit as a streetcar operator, 1955. Image cropped from a 1961 group photo. Courtesy of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689, all rights reserved.

Additional images can be seen in the Flickr set “Fighting Capital Transit Racism: 1941-55”.

Notes: Most of the material from which this history is derived is from public sources such as the Washington Afro-American, Washington Post, Washington Star and other newspapers. Other material was gathered Congressional hearing documents. Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 also made material available.

Craig Simpson is a former Secretary-Treasurer of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 and has a BA in labor studies from the National Labor College.  He can be contacted by e-mail at washington_area_spark@yahoo.com. 

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