There is something special about being first. First born, first wife, first husband, first tooth, first steps or first to break through some barrier. Mary Wallace has the distinction of being the first lady bus driver in Chicago, Illinois.
When Mary Wallace was hired by Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) back 1974, she had no idea she would be doing something no other woman, black or white, had done before. She retired in 2007.
Being a trail-blazer can be a wonderful thing because other people benefit from your efforts.
Austin Weekly News: How did you go about getting hired?
Mary Wallace: I used to work for the Planning & Placement Center when I was going to college, and we had job orders for CTA bus drivers. So I decided I wanted to check this out for myself, and I did. I went for three years, and they kept saying no, we can’t hire women, we don’t have facilities for women, so you have to do something else. I said I don’t want to do something else. I want to drive a bus. After three years of harassing them, they finally sent me a letter saying they would consider (not saying hire) me. They wanted me to come down and take some test, and I did not hear from them for about three or four months, and then I got a another letter saying I would be hired as a driver. After that, the rest is history.
Training at that time was about 14 days, I think now it is probably around 21 days. I started on 79th Street, the South Side.
AWN: Looking back what are your thoughts?
WALLACE: It was a long road and I can’t believe I stayed as long as I did. But I did give thousands of women and probably more the opportunity to actually come and work for the CTA. You know it is part of the affirmative action program, so they have many, many women. They are so happy they have women managers, women general managers, women mechanics, fork-lift drivers-basically any job that a man could be doing, they have all these women doing it and they are doing it just as well.
AWN: Was it difficult for you to deal with the public as a lady driver?
WALLACE: Yes, I got cat-calls, strange stares. I got more praise from the women and more kicks from the guys because they would say, “Here’s another woman who has taken a job from us.” In my mind, I thought if you can do this job, it’s yours-unlike those men, apparently. They did not want the job because they were still riding the bus. If they wanted the job, they would have applied.
AWN: Did you drive only in the black communities or all over the city?
WALLACE: Well, I did drive from the South Side, and I did go into the Spanish community far south, downtown, it was pretty much equal except when I transferred to the North Side. It was pretty much a white neighborhood. But it was cool-I didn’t have a problem.
AWN: Did you ever have anyone make racial remarks to you?
WALLACE: Every single day. Things such as “jiggerboos,” kind of like they would do during college days or school days-the lighter ones are the “honey-boos” and the others, “jiggerboos.” But times have changed since I was there. Sometimes there was discrimination from other male operators because they would say, “What is she doing here? This is a man’s job.” But as I’ve said, anybody who could do the job, it was theirs. And also I was by myself for quite a while and three or four months later they hired a few more ladies. And they received them a little better than they received me, but I did open the door for them. Today, there are so many women at the CTA they practically run the place.
AWN: Are you a native Chicagoan?
WALLACE: Yes I am. I attended Gage Park High School. I was in the first group of black students that went there in 1965. It was an experience. We used to get beat up by the police. Well, not beat up, but chased home, every day, the police officers from the 8th District. We would not ride the bus. We would all wait until everybody got out of school, and you would have 200 black kids walking down the street. And the police would follow us every day to make sure nothing happened, but we were not sure who might beat us up some days So I guess this probably prepared me for the driving the bus.
AWN: What are you doing in retirement?
WALLACE: I have my own recreational center (MBC Recreational Center Inc.), and I work together with Pastor Rosetta Dobson’s Walk By Faith, sharing space as well as working together with the kids. My home base is in the Lawndale community. We’re looking (with help from the alderman) to build a center from the ground up. We offer some of the same services as Walk By Faith-education, counseling, tutoring as well as dance classes, poetry reading, HIV awareness. We will have baseball this year, and now that I’m retired, I can devote more time. And we’re working on the Second Chance program with Cong. Danny Davis for the ex-offenders. There is just so much to do and there is only so much me and my partners can do. My target age group is 15-21 and those young people at risk.
Mary Wallace is the mother of three grown children: Thomas Wallace, Loletia Carney, and Lindsey Carney Jr., and one grandson Darius Carney Thomas. Contact MBC Recreational Center 847/818-1833 or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org