Berley Roberts Sr., a World War II veteran and retired streetcar driver, died Thursday of cancer at Joseph Ritchie Hospice. He was 76 and lived in Baltimore.
In 1952, Mr. Roberts became one of the first African-American streetcar drivers in Baltimore. He was assigned to the No. 8 streetcar, the well-traveled line that ran from Towson through Baltimore to Catonsville. As one of the few such drivers for the Baltimore Transit Co., he endured racial prejudice and harassment.
"He would come home and tell me incidents that happened," his wife of 54 years, the former Fannie M. Pretty, recalled. "People would spit in his face. People would say, 'What are you doing sitting up here? You're supposed to be sitting in the back of the bus.'"
Mr. Roberts endured, telling his family that it was important to help pave the way for other African-Americans. Mrs. Roberts recalled her husband saying, "Somebody's got to break it in, so I might as well start."
From his driver's seat, on streetcars and later on buses, Mr. Roberts witnessed an improvement in racial attitudes over time, said his wife and one of his daughters, Shelia V. Lewis of Baltimore.
"After it became more common to have African-Americans drive buses, everyone wanted to ride his bus because he was such a kind person," Mrs. Lewis said.
Mr. Roberts began working for the Baltimore Transit Co. in 1946, cleaning and maintaining streetcars and buses, and was promoted to streetcar driver in 1952. He drove streetcars and buses and did other jobs for the transit company and the state Mass Transit Administration for more than 40 years. He retired in 1988.
He was born and raised in Zebulon, N.C. He enlisted in the Army in 1943 during World War II and participated in the Normandy invasion. In 1946, he received an honorable discharge and moved to Baltimore.
He was a member of New Psalmist Baptist Church, where he was a volunteer driver for a church program. He also was a member of William F. Taylor Lodge No. 57, Prince Hall Masons.
Mr. Roberts liked watching the History Channel, driving his Ford Crown Victoria, going to flea markets and cooking for his family.
"My father was the son of a farmer, so he liked to cook," Mrs. Lewis recalled. "One time he brought home a turtle and made turtle soup. He would bring live oysters home and make oyster stew and soup. That was the farmer side of him."
"He was a family man and a very good neighbor," Mrs. Lewis said. "He treated everyone with respect."
Services will be held at 11 a.m. Thursday at New Psalmist Baptist Church, 4501 1/2 Old Frederick Road.
In addition to his wife and daughter, Mr. Roberts is survived by two other daughters, Barbara F. McGee and Diann Scott, both of Baltimore; two sons, Berley Roberts Jr. of Powhatan, Va., and Andre S. Roberts of Baltimore; a brother, Carl Roberts of Greensboro, N.C.; 10 grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.