Driving social change: Fort Wayne’s pioneering African American bus drivers

| February 24, 2016
Len Ferrell (left) and Fort Wayne's first African American bus driver Lewis Sims stand before a picture of Rosa Parks.

Len Ferrell (left) and Fort Wayne’s first African American bus driver Lewis Sims stand before a picture of Rosa Parks.

By Betsy Kachmar

Special to Frost Illustrated

The 60th anniversary of Rosa Parks’ historic moment of defiance in Montgomery, Ala., 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 1950-60s 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 needed to integrate their workforce.  Mr. Walker met Mr. 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.

“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 recalls.

Sims joined the ranks of 580 drivers as a part-time bus operator at 84 cents/hour and 36 years later retired number one in seniority.

Frost Illustrated ran a lengthy article about Mr. Sims in the April 4-10, 1990 issue upon his retirement.  In it, 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.  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, later 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 and he has served for 37 years, and counting.

The Thomas family, Richard, John and Richard Jr. all have served Fort Wayne's public transportation system.

The Thomas family, Richard, John and Richard Jr. all have served Fort Wayne’s public transportation system.

Slightly less than a year after starting his new job, Richard Thomas welcomed our third generation Thomas family bus driver.  Fort Wayne Transit (now known as Citilink) welcomed Richard Thomas Jr. as a bus driver in 2003 and he was promoted to street supervisor/dispatcher in 2006—following in his grandfather’s footsteps.

Richard Jr. recalls:

“I would ride along with my dad and grandpa and hang around the bus company.  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 added.

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.

Betsy Kachmar is assistant general manager of Citilink/FWPTC.

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Category: Civil Rights, Community, Features, History, Local, People

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Frost Illustrated is Fort Wayne's oldest weekly newspaper. Your Independent Voice in the Community, featuring news & views of African Americans since 1968.

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