Celebrating Black History Month: How The First African-American Motormen & “Motormanette” Pioneered Social Justice On The Los Angeles Railway


Arcola Philpott, 1913-1991. The first African-American "motorman" was a woman!

Los Angeles Railway was not previously known as a socially progressive organization, nor were many other industries or job markets of the early 1940s.

The headlines of the Los Angeles Sentinel and the California Eagle from 1942-1944, the leading African American newspapers in Los Angeles took notice.

They noted that racial integration of the ranks of motormen was a major change from past practices, skillyfully negotiated by the Reverend Clayton Russell’s Los Angeles Negro Victory Comittee, the AFL-CIO, the NAACP, the Fair Employment Practices Commission and the reform-minded Los Angeles Mayor Fletcher Bowron.

Hiring women as streetcar and bus operators in 1942 was a small start.

In August of 1944, and without much fanfare, Los Angeles Railway hired its first African-American motorman, Mrs. Arcola Philpott — a “motormanette.”

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.

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.  She told us:

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.

Arcola worked out of Arthur Winston Division 5 and drove the “F” line from 116th/South Vermont Avenue to Union Station, traveling up Vermont to Santa Barbara (now Martin Luther King Boulevard), Grand, Jefferson, Main, Macy (now Cesar Chavez) to the Union Station Passenger Terminal.

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.

In the early 1940s, the Rev. Clayton Russell’s Los Angeles Negro Victory Committee and his People’s Independent Church Of Christ were 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.

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 Franklin D. Roosevelt had previously ordered the nation’s transit systems to hire African Ameircans 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 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.

As street railways were increasingly converted to bus lines in L.A., 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.  In 1993, it merged with the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission to form Metro, the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

In addition to being the first “motormanette,” Arcola Philpott was an accomplished pianist and spoke several foreign languages. 

Prior to coming to Los Angeles from Chicago, she performed welfare work for seven years and also worked in research for the University of Chicago’s History Department.  She attended Loyola University studying social science, and attended City College while in Los Angeles.

We located her 1945 payroll record in our Archive, discovering that she lived near the corner of Adams and Central, near the heart of the vibrant Central Avenue jazz district.

After returning to Chicago, she worked as a licensed practical nurse as well as a journalist for the Chicago Defender and Pittsburgh Courier.  In her later years, she worked as a docemt for the Museum of Science and Industry and the Chicago Public Library, passing away on May 14, 1991.