Magazine article The Crisis

Museum and Online Registry Preserve Story of Black Railroad Porters

Magazine article The Crisis

Museum and Online Registry Preserve Story of Black Railroad Porters

Article excerpt

In 1921, Wesley Watkins migrated from Mississippi to Chicago, where he worked as a railroad porter for 40 years. His nephew, Ron Watkins, remembers his uncle giving him his first electric train set.

"He was considered a patriarch and [was] very well respected," Watkins recalls. "All of us had a great reverence and respect for him because of the way : he carried himself."

Wesley Watkins was among more than 20,000 African American porters working on trains during the 1920s. Porters oversaw passenger comfort on the Pullman trains, which dominated rail travel at the time.

When Cincinnati native Lyn Hughes toured Chicago's Pullman District in 1990, she found the building that housed the headquarters of the Pullman Palace Car Co. vacant and dilapidated. The company had employed thousands of African American men as porters and waiters on its trains from 1868 to 1968, when it ceased operation.

In 1995, Hughes established the A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum in Chicago to show the great legacy of the Pullman porters, many of whom were recently freed slaves.

"Pullman wanted people of African descent to work in that capacity because ... they would not complain about their treatment or pay. They had no frame of reference about their worth," she says.

In 1925, the porters organized the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP), which was led by A. Philip Randolph. The union protested poor working conditions and inadequate pay. On Aug. 25, 1937, the BSCP became the first Black labor union to secure a collectivebargaining agreement with a major U. …

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