Los Angeles transit’s first Black employee: William E. “Bill” Wells (1862-1943)

Post content by Matthew Barrett, Director, Library, Archives and Records Information Management

The Los Angeles Police Department recognized and honored its first black police officer in 2022, Robert William Stewart, and library staff were prompted to look deeper into Metro’s family tree of direct predecessors to find a similar story among our archival resources.

Several years ago, Metro’s Dorothy Peyton Gray Transportation Research Library and Archive digitized its extensive collection of employee news magazines from Metro and all its direct predecessors.

We also worked with the archive at the Southern California Railways Museum in Perris to fill in our Archive’s gaps. From this collaboration, the resource now spans 1918 through 2009. The collection is online and searchable, available to transit history fans and researchers.

Using the historic employee news collection, Metro Operations employee Sean Davies brought William Wells to our attention.

William E. “Bill” Wells 

William E. “Bill” Wells was born in Springfield, Missouri, April 4, 1862, beginning life as an enslaved person in the early days of the Civil War.  He was sent with his parents who were also enslaved from Missouri to Texas for safety. His grandfather, a minister, later arranged for the purchase of his daughter, William’s mother, and her family.

One of Bill’s early childhood memories was Union soldiers on their charging gray horses, the breaking up of the Civil War and the cavalry bands announcing its end.  After the Civil War and emancipation, the family made its way to Los Angeles.

William Wells remembered Los Angeles before Hollywood existed, when jack rabbits afforded plentiful hunting, and land could be had for a song.

William witnessed the upbuilding of a great metropolis around him during his life here. Horse drawn rail cars grew into the world’s largest electrified rail system, and the largely agricultural land use was developed into an urban/suburban city with a legendary entertainment industry and a robust manufacturing base.

He began working for a public transit company before automobiles existed, and retired just after the first freeway segment, the Pasadena Freeway, was about to open.

Los Angeles is where is met his wife. After marrying on January 10, 1887 they raised three children. Mr. and Mrs. Wells spent over 56 years together. Mrs. Wells was described as his helpmate, companion and counselor.

William was originally hired as a janitor by Los Angeles Consolidated Electric (LACE) Railway on March 16, 1891. He was quickly promoted to Messenger for the Treasury Department, a position of high trust carrying financial instruments between operating divisions, headquarters and banks.

For a time, he worked directly for Henry E. Huntington in his personal office.  When Bill was hired, the Black population of Los Angeles was 1,258 people (2.4%) out of a total population of 50,935.

Los Angeles Consolidated Electric Railway also started our transportation library. Henry E. Huntington purchased LACE from early rail developers Eli Clark and Moses Sherman in 1898 and absorbed it into Los Angeles Railway (LARy).

LARy continued to develop the library collection and its services. LARy was the owner, builder and operator of Los Angeles’ Yellow Car streetcar system that allowed William, L.A.’s electrified transit system, and the transportation library to thrive.

In 1920, William Wells ran 3rd in the election for Republican central committee nominees in the 64th Assembly District (Compton/Carson area) and was congratulated for the accomplishment in the employee news.

In 1934, he landed a small role in a Hollywood film, RKO Studios’ Red Morning (working title, Sea Girl), starring Steffi Duna and Regis Tooney.

Red Morning, poster, US poster, from left: Regis Toomey, Steffi Duna, 1934. (Photo by LMPC via Getty Images)

He appeared as Chief of a tribe of South Sea Islanders and spoke several native words. The island scenes were filmed on Santa Catalina Island as the stand-in set for Papua New Guinea.

Extended Family

Like many other transit families over the decades and today, his cousin Opal Barber also worked for Los Angeles Railway, beginning in 1938.


As Lunchroom Matron, she presided over the coffee break lounge and employee lunchroom operations at Los Angeles Railway’s headquarters building located at 1060 S. Broadway, which has recently been reborn as the Hoxton Hotel.

She married Operator Perry Du Bose in April 1946 and retired from successor agency Southern California Rapid Transit District (SCRTD) in February, 1967 after 29 years of service.

After 48 years with the company, William “Bill” E. Wells retired on September 1, 1939, just 5 years before Los Angeles Railway would hire it first black Operator, Arcola Philpott.

From the retirement announcement in the employee news magazine, Two Bells:

“He will look forward to the pleasures of home life of which he is well deserving after the many years of loyal service he has given to the Company. William will be missed greatly by all his friends in the Railway who enjoyed his pleasant friendly manner, and with him we all send our best wishes for health and happiness in future years.” 

William passed away April 13, 1943 at the age of 81. From the announcement in the employee news:

“After an extended illness, William Wells reached the end of the line. William, as he was commonly called by his friends, was a member of the Railway family over fifty-two years, entering the company as a messenger in the Treasury Department in March 1891, and serving in that capacity until his retirement on September 1, 1939. William was born in Springfield, Missouri, April 4, 1862, and came to Los Angeles fifty-four years ago. A member of the Masonic Lodge, he was a thirty-third degree Mason. One of his daily deeds was to’ hand out flowers to his friends, flowers that he raised himself. This act alone personified the beauty of his character. Our sympathy is offered to the bereaved.”

This article, along with the story of Arcola Philpott, our first black Operator, and the Motormanettes, our first women Operators, are part of a larger effort by the Library and Archive to actively document the contributions of underrepresented and marginalized people and groups in our long transit history.

Sources consulted – 

Los Angeles Railway Two Bells employee news magazine May 1943, August 1939, March 1937, July 1937, February 1937, April 1936, October 1934, and September 1920. 

Southern California Rapid Transit District Two Bells employee news magazine (later, Headway), February 1967 

Electric Railway Historical Association

SurveyLA. Los Angeles Citywide Historic Context Statement: African American History of Los Angeles.  City of Los Angeles, Department of City Planning, Office of Historic Resources. February 2018. 

American Film Institute Catalog.