Recently Pensacola transportation pioneer, Matilda Townsend, passed away after a brief illness. Matilda’s warm and inviting personality ensured that she never met a stranger. She was devoted to her family and community. Her determination was another characteristic for which she was noted. This determination served her well throughout her personal and professional life.
In 1951 Mrs. Townsend started her career at what is now known as the Escambia County Area Transit (ECAT). For 24 years she was a custodian in the bus garage that was once located on Jefferson and Brue streets. On April 1, 1975 she stepped into ECAT and Pensacola history by becoming the first female driver since World War II. This distinction is doubly notable because her position also made her the first black woman to drive for ECAT.
On April 2, 1975, her second day as an ECAT driver, Matilda was interviewed by the Pensacola Journal (now known as the Pensacola News Journal, PNJ). Here is a brief excerpt the article that was published on April 3, 1975.
“At first the other drivers didn’t think I’d have the nerve to do it,” she says.
“Now that they see I’m doing it, they accept it.”
“One of them came up to me the other day and asked if I really wanted to
drive a bus. I said, ‘sure, why not?’ He said, “Well it’s a big job.” ‘I told him
women can do big jobs too.’”
Not a woman’s libber by her own definition, Mrs. Townsend believes in equal
job opportunities. “I believe women can do what men can do most of the time
and they should have the same opportunity to try for jobs,” she says.
“Maybe my driving the bus will encourage other women to try,” she says. “I’ve
had several to ask me about how you get to be a woman driver.”
“How nice to see a lady,” an embarking passenger says.
“Don’t give up…keep fighting,” a young man says as he leaves the bus at his
…Aware of the responsibility for the bus and its passengers, she doesn’t let it worry her as she goes about her route. “I just ask the Lord to let me be a good driver and not let anything happen to anybody.”
Less than a year into her new position Matilda received enough votes from her passengers to be recognized by ECAT for her courtesy in February 1976. Matilda would drive for twelve years before assuming the position of ECAT customer service coordinator.
The Pensacola Chapter of The National Coalition of 100 Black Women, Inc. feted her in their first annual Black Women on the Move Recognition Program in 1994. The program honored African-American women who were first in their area of accomplishment in Pensacola. Some of the other honorees at this inaugural event included Sue Straughn, TV News Anchor; Peggy Scott, world renowned singer; Lillie James Frazer, sister of legend Chappie James and first black female professor at Pensacola State College; Carmen Henderson-Jones, first black female City of Pensacola police officer; Caldonia Lewis, first black female bank manager at AmSouth Bank; Joyce R. Reese, first black female elected to Pensacola City Council; and Dr. Ruby Jackson Gainer, first black president of the local chapter of the Classroom Teachers Association, past president of the Ella Jordan House, and a pioneer in educating local black children.
In 1995 Matilda was recognized as the ECAT Operations Employee of the Year. In 2001 ECAT recognized her for 50 years of service. At that time PNJ shared her statement, “I can’t believe it’s been 50 years. I’ve enjoyed every minute of every day.”
A black woman entering a male dominated field in 1974 and thriving there for twelve years underscores how her personality was the secret of her success. When situations could have become tense Matilda was able to remain calm and see the bigger picture. Even on that second day of the job she wanted to let other women know they could do what she was doing. Just as other black heroes who were first in their fields understood, Matilda knew that she had to have the job in order to show people being a black woman was not a handicap.
In a time when American employees between the ages of 18 to 48 are expected have an average of 11.7 jobs (Bureau of Labor Statistics) Matilda’s career also reminds us that there are rewards in longevity. In her professional life she was able to positively touch the lives of people all over Escambia County as she gave ECAT more than fifty years of faithful service.
Matilda didn’t just have a long lasting career, she and her beloved Clarence were happily married for 67 years. Their union produced three children, Nellie Dean, Chris Townsend and Andre Townsend. Her dedication to her family and friends is her most enduring legacy and she will be deeply missed by all who knew her.
Family and friends will gather to say their final goodbyes to Matilda Townsend at 11:00am on Saturday, March 24th at Mt. Olive Baptist Church, Pensacola, FL.