Second in a two-part series.
Part I: First Women Conductors were called Motormanettes...
By Matthew Barrett
(March 24, 2005) Los Angeles Railway was not previously known as a socially progressive organization, nor were many other industries or job markets of the early 1940’s.
Hiring women as streetcar and bus operators in 1942 was a small start. Noting the newspaper headlines of the Los Angeles Sentinel and California Eagle from 1942-1944, racial integration of the ranks of motormen was a major change from past practices, skillfully negotiated by the Rev. Clayton Russell's Los Angeles Negro Victory Committee, the AFL-CIO, the NAACP, the Fair Employment Practices Commission and the reform-minded Los Angeles Mayor Fletcher Bowron.
In August of 1944, and without much fanfare, Los Angeles Railway hired its first African-American motorman, a motormanette, Mrs. Arcola Philpott.
Maybe it was Philadelphia’s William Barber, or New York’s first black motorman William Bath that were her inspiration to walk into the employment office of the L.A. Railway and apply, or maybe it was the community’s support, or maybe it was the sight of women all over the U.S. working as streetcar operators and other important jobs (see timeline below).
Arcola Philpott’s employment at the Los Angeles Railway earned her an important place in Los Angeles transportation history. She helped open two doors that had previously been closed.
Arcola Philpott’s daughter, Ethel Philpott of Chicago, believes it was the inspiration of other women going to work in what had been known as traditionally men’s jobs that inspired her mother to become a streetcar operator.
“My mother was just like that, born in the wrong era for all the things she wanted to do, she was a real go-getter. She was extremely intelligent, courageous, fearless and a life long learner,” she said,
Within a few weeks of hiring Mrs. Philpott, Los Angeles Railway hired its first black motormen.
They were Louis S. Bernard, Hoyt. A. Brown, Percy B. Hill, Roosevelt Mills, Butler James Mitchell, W.B. Jones, E. M. Morris, W.S.A Weary, James Womack and probably more trailblazers whose records have been lost over the ensuing 60 years.
As street railways were increasingly converted to bus lines, Los Angeles Railway was sold to the Los Angeles Transit Lines Company in 1945.
Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority, the first publicly governed transit agency, purchased Los Angeles Transit Lines routes and assets in 1958. That agency became the Southern California Rapid Transit District in 1964 and in 1993, it merged with the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission to form the current Metro.
Today bus and rail operator workforce of Metro of nearly 5,000 employees includes 32 percent women, 49 percent African-American men, and twenty-three percent African-American women.
In the early 1940s, the Rev. Clayton Russell's Los Angeles Negro Victory Committee and his People's Independent Church of Christ was fighting for equal opportunity and social justice in Los Angeles.
This included gaining motormen and conductor opportunities for African Americans on the Los Angeles Railway, and a halt to prejudice by labor unions.
He had a weekly radio address that conveyed his messages of equality loud and clear. He also organized marches and rallies to demand that a fair share of the wartime defense industry jobs go to African Americans.
Rev. Russell strategically formed an alliance with labor and gained sympathy from the greater Los Angeles community through bond sale rallies featuring popular black entertainers such as Ethel Waters, Noble Sissle and Ben Carter that raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the war effort.
The black population of Los Angeles had more than doubled between 1940 and 1944, from about 60,000 to over 130,000 people.
Los Angeles Railway began feeling the pressure of community and related events happening across the country.
In January of 1943, Los Angeles Railway finally gave its commitment to Rev. Clayton Russell that African Americans would receive motorman job opportunities.
The federal Fair Employment Practices Commission set up by President Roosevelt had previously ordered the nation's transit systems to hire African Americans as streetcar motormen, citing President Roosevelt’s wartime Executive Order 8802 which prohibited employment discrimination based on race, color or national origin.
On August 1, 1944, the motormen of the Philadelphia Transit Company went on strike over the issue.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered a military takeover of the transit system and threatened the strikers, via personal telegrams, with being drafted and sent to the front lines if they didn't return to work by the following Monday. They went back to work immediately but federal troops still had to protect Philadelphia's first black motorman, William Barber.
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