Three sisters walked down a Catonsville path this week to get their first glimpse of a mural created to honor their father, a man described as the “Jackie Robinson of Baltimore’s streetcars.”
Berley Roberts Sr. was an African American employee of the old Baltimore Transit Co. In 1952, after working in the streetcar and bus headquarters as a cleaner and helper, he was asked to be the first Black man to encounter white passengers as an operator — the motorman ran the No. 8 Line from Catonsville, where the mural is located, to a loop at the old Towson Baltimore County Court House.
“My father never missed a day of work,” said one of the siblings, his daughter, Barbara McGee. “I knew what he was going through and he just kept striving. I can see him walking to work in a snowstorm. He’d be carrying his seat cushion and his coin money changing machine.
“During that incredible snow of 1958, he said, ‘I have seven mouths to feed and I have to go to work,’” McGee said. “He walked from all the way to Bush Street [transit headquarters].”
Roberts is depicted on the mural at his seat just inside the folding front doors of a classic Baltimore transit car on what was then the line that carried the most passengers and was also the longest in the city.
“My father always told us to be proud of who were were,” said another daughter, Shelia V. Lewis. “He was a sweet person and everybody loved Mr. Berley.”
She and her sisters described growing up in a three-bedroom home with their parents in Cherry Hill at 3001 LaRue Square East. Their father, a returning World War II veteran, married Fannie M. Pretty and they raised their family.
“My father saved and my mother went to school and got a degree as a registered nurse. They worked together to purchase the house,” said another daughter, Diann Cupid.
“There were nine in the household with one bathroom,” daughter Shelia V. Lewis recalled. “And my father loved to read, and read history, while in that room.”
As a Black man operating a transit vehicle, Berley Roberts Sr. faced passengers who spat at him and made racist remarks. One jerk threw a garbage can at his streetcar.
He also suffered post-traumatic stress disorder as a World War II veteran.
Not long off a farm in Zebulon, North Carolina, he enlisted in the Army in 1943 during World War II and participated in the Normandy invasion. In 1946, he was honorably discharged and settled in Baltimore as part of what we now call the Great Migration.
He initially worked at the Bethlehem Steel Co.’s Sparrows Point Plant and helped build new homes in Glen Burnie in his free time and evenings. He worked two jobs because the transit company operated around the clock and he had variable shifts.
His daughters said their father explained to them it was important to break color barriers.
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“Somebody’s got to break it in, so I might as well start,” he told them. His daughter, Shelia said, “After it became more common to have African Americans drive buses, everyone wanted to ride his bus because he was such a kind person.”
After the Baltimore Transit Co. became the state’s Mass Transit Administration, he continued working (he later drove buses) and retired in 1988. He died 22 years ago this week.
He was a great fan of the History Channel (he made quite a bit of history himself) and after owning a used wood paneled station wagons to transport his family around, he treated himself to a Ford Crown Victoria.
He picked through treasures at flea markets and cooked game, chiefly squirrel and venison. He was a member of the Prince Hall Masons and New Psalmist Baptist Church.
The mural honoring Berley Roberts Sr. has its own history. It was begun by an Eagle Scout candidate, Clark LeCompte in 1997. Ella Munoz Gonzalez and Edward Williams later expanded and refurbished the large wall painting.
The mural is a part of Catonsville Rails to Trails. The rails in this spot are the same tracks of the very same No. 8 streetcar that Roberts operated beginning in 1952.
“We think of him as the Jackie Robinson of streetcars,” said Maureen Sweeney Smith of Catonsville Rails to Trails, the group that manages the old streetcar path and commissioned the mural and manages its upkeep.