Amtrak pays special tribute to porters

February 10, 2009 7:19:50 PM PST
A tribute to a group of men whose work was often undervalued. They were African-American porters and waiters on trains, and they made history.

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Amtrak paid tribute to their legacy today, as part of Black History Month.

They were Pullman porters who tended to the sleeping cars and dining car waiters. On Tuesday in Oakland, Amtrak paid tribute to them for the job they did decades ago. For many, it seemed like another lifetime.

"Jobs where blacks could make a living for you and your family was very, very small," said retired dining car waiter Samuel Coleman.

He's 80 now, but Coleman spent a quarter century working the trains, mostly on the Chicago to Oakland line.

He started out making 51 cents an hour as a cook -- a glorified dishwasher, basically, and was glad to do it, even if other white workers on the train were treated better.

"In the baggage car we'd put up cots. we'd sleep in the dining car after we served," said Coleman.

At the time, James Smith had no idea he was making history.

"This was a golden opportunity, and I was a waiter. We carried a 1,000 people every day on the train," said Smith.

By 1926, at the height of the country's railroad system, there were more than 20,000 African-American men working as Pullman porters. Back then it was one of the most coveted jobs by African-American men in the country.

They became famous for their outstanding service. The pride they took in their job and the way they catered to passengers' every need.

"Without them it was just cold steel. Eight, nine cars or 10 cars but with them, they gave the train soul," said Brian Rosenwald from Amtrak.

"These were ordinary men doing an extraordinary thing. They were going about the biz of doing their jobs and in the process, they made history," said the founder of the Porter Museum in Chicago Lyn Hughes.

And today, this forgotten group, was finally honored for it.

Click here for Pullman porters ceremony details

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