Thirty-one years and a number of months! That’s more than a life time for many people. But, that’s how many years of his life Walter Johnson dedicated to the transportation industry. Just how did it all start?
Walter became familiar with bus transportation from his father Willie (Coot) Johnson. Back in the forties his father was employed as a bus hustler with the old transit system which was privately owned by William Pawley. Mr. Pawley was the owner of Miami Transit and a bus company in Havana, Cuba. Willie Johnson traveled with Mr. Pawley to and from Havana where he learned to handle buses.
As a Black man, Willie was not permitted to handle buses in revenue service, (only on special occasions and to help with the replacement of disabled buses). During the war, due to a shortage of drivers, he was permitted to pick up military personnel and take them from Fifth Street in Miami Beach to the McAllister Hotel in downtown Miami. Walter sometimes traveled with his father and this allowed him to become familiar with many of the old Pawley bus personnel. The experiences were not always pleasant. It was hurtful for Walter to see eggs being thrown at the bus his father was driving when he transported the military personnel across McArthur Causeway. The memories those incidents made him a bitter person.
In 1960 or 1961 Pawley employees went on strike and Mr. Pawley sold the bus company to Dade County. When it became known that the county owned the bus company and would have to hire Blacks, Mr. Dan Wallace, the General Superintendent, sent for Walter’s father to come to his office on 18 Street and Biscayne Boulevard. Dan Wallace offered Willie Johnson a job as a bus operator. He would have become the first black bus operator, but Mr. Johnson senior declined the offer. Since Walter was with him he offered him the position as operator. He too turned down the offer as well. In the early part of 1962 Walter relocated to Chicago, Illinois, where he applied for a bus operator’s position with the Chicago Transit Authority. He passed the test, but being homesick for Miami, he returned home and then applied for a bus operator’s position and was hired in April 1963.
During this time, Walter held several positions. From April 1963 to 1965 he performed the job of Bus Operator. 1965 – 1967 he acted as Route Information Clerk. From 1967 – 1969 he became Acting Bus Starter. 1969 to 1974 he was Acting Information Clerk. In 1974 he worked with a Miami Times reporter Dave Bondu and Miami Commissioner, A. Range on the issue of why Dade County had not employed or promoted African Americans above the level of Bus operator. In 1974 he became the second African American to be appointed to the role of Supervisor. In 1975 he had the honor of being elected to president of Miami Dade Transit Supervisors Association. Working with Charlie Maddox, of the Police Benevolent Association, and Lee Tafel, President of the American Federation of Public Employees, he was able to organize the Government Supervisors Association of Florida for the purpose of bargaining for better wages and working conditions.
Between 1975 to 1994, Mr. Johnson climbed the corporation’s ladder and became Chief Supervisor, and acted as Superintendent of Transportation. In 1978 Mr. Johnson was appointed to the position of Superintendent of Rail Operations and sent to Pueblo, Colorado, for training. He was then transferred to Rail Division where he became Acting Superintendent of Rail Operations in 1981 the post from which he retired in July 1994.
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The Conference of Minority Transportation Officials (COMTO) was created to provide a forum for minority professionals in the transportation industry. COMTO’s membership includes individuals, groups, transportation agencies, private sector corporations, non-profit organizations, and Historically Underutilized Businesses (HUBs).