They had to sleep in the smoking cars,” Hughes says.
In 1925, A. Philip Randolph organized the Brotherhood of the Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP), but it wasn’t until Aug. 25, 1937, after a bitter battle with the anti-union Pullman Co. that the BSCP was recognized as the official union of the Pullman Porters and porters began to receive equal pay and benefits. The BSCP was the very first African American labor union to sign a collective bargaining agreement with a major U.S. corporation.
Last week, former black railroad workers as old as 99 years of age made a pilgrimage to Oakland, California, to be honored by Amtrak for their hard work, unparalleled service and steadfast determination in the face of stark racism. Amtrak held similar events in Chicago and Washington D.C. last year. This long overdue praise was given to dining and sleeping car porters who served passengers traveling from coast to coast during the country’s golden era of rail travel.
Amtrak located these black railroad workers or porters using the Pullman Porter Registry, a database compiled by Hughes that contains the contact information for thousands of living porters.
Samuel Coleman, 80, of Las Vegas, attended the ceremony in Oakland. He worked on the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy railroad line for 25 years as a dining car waiter.
“It’s kind of sad when you look back at those years. We were somewhat the ambassadors [for the Pullman Co.]. We were the ones that they encountered first,” Coleman says. “They would want you to smile and give them the best service, and we did it because it helped us to take care of our families and do some of the things that we wanted to do.”
Coleman played an influential role in bridging a partnership between the BSCP the dining car waiters. In the late 1950s, Coleman and others sought to gain recognition under the Brotherhood in order to gain better wages and treatment. The resulting union is known today as the Transportation Communications International Union.
“We thought it would be important for our employees to gain an understanding and appreciation of the type of service that these gentlemen provided on the train and the conditions in which they worked,” says Darlene Abubakar, director of national advertising at Amtrak. “No one saw the indignity that they experienced on the train. People saw the glamour of it. We need to recognize our unsung heroes.”