The commute through racial barriers

WAY BACK WHEN

February 22, 2003|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

In her new book, Got My Mind Set on Freedom: Maryland's Story of Black-White Activism 1663-2000, Barbara Mills writes that employment opportunities for African-Americans were greatly expanded in 1951 when the Yellow Cab Co. of Baltimore began integrating its taxi drivers.

With other local cab companies following suit, an estimated 260 jobs were created for blacks who took their place behind the wheel with their white counterparts.

"I could see no sound reason why the people in Baltimore should be deprived of the services of many taxicabs when qualified men and women of color were available and seeking honorable and gainful employment," said Robert Freedman, president of Yellow Cab, when he was presented an award from the Hollander Foundation that year.

"I could see no reason why any white person wouldn't be satisfied to ride in a Yellow taxicab driven by a Negro driver, when it was common knowledge that some of the best white families in this state were actively seeking Negroes to drive their personal and expensive limousines and to be butlers in their very homes," he said.

While the streetcars, trackless trolleys and buses of the Baltimore Transit Co. had been integrated for years, hiring practices discriminated against blacks who aspired to be motormen or bus drivers. "Blacks were not hired as streetcar operators or bus drivers. They did various jobs around carhouses, such as car cleaners or out on the line as track workers. They got the lower echelon jobs, which was very unfair," said Andrew S. Blumberg, trustee and director of public relations for the Baltimore Streetcar Museum.

Black passengers also experienced discrimination. In 1945, Lillie M. Jackson, president of the NAACP's Baltimore branch, wrote to the transit company protesting streetcar employees who treated blacks discourteously by "using epithets and provoking disorderly conduct which incites to riot."

She also complained about motormen and bus drivers who refused to stop and pick up black riders when their cars were half-filled.

"Many of us are helping in the war effort in our daily employment and we feel that common civility by the operators of the vehicles which transport us is our due," she wrote.

Jackson also asserted that "qualified colored citizens who have been referred by the United States Employment Service to the Baltimore Transit Company, have been refused employment as operators and conductors simply because of their race."

The issue was temporarily dormant until 1952, when transit company workers, represented by Division 1300, AFL, Amalgamated Street Railway and Motor Coach Employees, went on strike. They were resisting the company's efforts requiring them to wear gray shirts, but a larger issue lurked beneath the surface: resentment toward the BTC's plan to fill 200 vacancies with black drivers.

After the Public Utilities Commission intervened, the strike ended when workers were allowed to wear either white or gray shirts and agreed to instruct the new black hires.

Berley Roberts Sr., who had started with the BTC as a car and bus cleaner, was one of a few blacks - others included Stanley Jackson and Perey Leon - who broke the color barrier when they were hired in May 1952.

They were trained to be bus drivers on the No. 18 Pennsylvania Avenue line, which was slated for conversion to bus operation the next month.

Later in 1952, Roberts took over as motorman on the No. 8 Towson-Catonsville streetcar line, and found his first year to be something of a challenge, as he endured racial prejudice and harassment.

"He would come home and tell me incidents that happened," said his wife of 54 years, the former Fannie M. Pretty. "People would spit in his face. People would say, `What are you doing sitting up here?' "

"Somebody's got to break it in, so I may as well start," Roberts told streetcar museum officials years later.

Roberts became one of the company's most popular drivers with passengers. He retired from the Mass Transit Administration in 1988, and died in 2001.

By 1953, there were 355 blacks among the transit company's 1,900 drivers.

A permanent exhibition at the streetcar museum commemorates the struggle of black transit workers. It includes Roberts' cap and service pins, which were donated by his family.

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