The 60th anniversary of Rosa Parks’ historic moment of defiance in Montgomery, Alabama, when the seamstress famously refused to give up her seat on a city bus to a white passenger, coincides with another milestone in our local public transit history: Lewis Sims was hired in 1955 as the first African- American bus driver in Fort Wayne.
In the 1950s and ‘60s, trolley/motor bus service was provided by the Fort Wayne Transit Company. It was then a private for-profit business managed by a man named Don Walker. To qualify for federal transit subsidy, the private company was required to integrate its workforce.
Walker met Sims, who was working as a bartender for the Chamber of Commerce, and encouraged him to apply to be a bus driver. Sims remembers being apprehensive after he started but wasn’t afraid. He recalls, "Some drivers quit, some riders waited for the next bus or made negative remarks; however, Mr. Walker, some of the drivers and some passengers stood behind me and more followed along after."
Sims joined the ranks of 580 drivers as a part-time bus operator at 84 cents an hour. Thirty-six years later he retired, first in seniority.
In a Frost Illustrated article about his retirement in 1990, Sims recounted that his biggest satisfaction came from the knowledge that, as a pioneer, he helped other African-Americans who came after him. "I look at the roster and see the black employees," he said. "I feel I had something to do with that. I thought if I made it, the company would be encouraged to hire more black workers."
One of those to follow in his footsteps was John Thomas, who began driving for Fort Wayne Transit (then known as PTC) in 1967. He was promoted to serve as the first African-American street supervisor/dispatcher and retired in 1994. Throughout his 27 years of service to Fort Wayne Transit, he was sufficiently fulfilled to recommend it as a career to his son, Richard Thomas, who began as a driver in 1978. Richard Thomas has served for 37 years and counting. Slightly less than a year after starting his new job, Richard Thomas welcomed a third generation. Richard Thomas Jr. began as a Citilink bus driver in 2003; he was promoted to street supervisor/dispatcher in 2006 – following in his grandfather’s footsteps.
"I would ride along with my Dad and Grandpa and hang around the bus company," Richard Thomas Jr. said. "Finally, I decided if I was going to spend so much time there, I might as well get paid.
"Buses are in our blood – my Dad made buses out of old cereal boxes when he was a child and it was my childhood dream to be a bus driver," he said.
A favored tagline for public transit resonates – "Public Transit, Getting You There Wherever Life Takes You." On many levels public transit is movement for social change; whether you are riding the bus or driving it.
It is access to jobs, and a good union job. It is mobility and economic stability. It is connectivity and empowerment.
We are proud of every member of our Fort Wayne Citilink team and the valuable service they provide to help our community move in the right direction.