A Sweet Ride For A 100th Birthday

October 22, 1994|By Consella A. Lee | Consella A. Lee,Sun Staff Writer

For 43 years Riley Marcilous Davis rode the Capitol Limited and the California Zephyr, plush passenger trains where he shined shoes, made up sleeping berths, ran errands.

He was a Pullman porter, part of the brotherhood of black men who were as indispensable as the storied trains they rode.

Today, Mr. Davis will enjoy a sweet ride himself when a white, stretch limousine pulls up to his Glen Burnie home and carries him to First Apostolic Faith Church in Baltimore to celebrate his 100th birthday.

Even though his actual birthday was Oct. 15, at least 300 people are expected for today's celebration. Members of First Apostolic, where he has worshiped for more than 70 years, will be there.

Relatives are coming from Gary, Ind.; Jersey City, N.J.; and Chicago. His cousin, C. W. Shootes, 98, will come from St. Petersburg, Fla., to help celebrate a life that predates the modern age, a life that has included stints as a baseball pitcher and as a friend of the great civil rights activist, A. Philip Randolph.

Mr. Riley does not look like a centenarian. His skin is barely wrinkled. His brown eyes, which now stare out from behind bifocals, are still alert. And he is in good health, though he does take medicine to regulate his heart.

His life began in Americus, Ga., on Oct. 15, 1894. He was the fourth of 14 children born to Mary Lue Solomond, a seamstress, and Lucious Davis Sr., a farmer who grew cotton on 50 rented acres. By Mr. Riley's recollection, theirs was a modest life.

"We was about the average," said Mr. Riley, the only member of that family still living. "Steady work, hard work, chopping cotton."

He was a strong man, could pick 300 pounds of cotton a day and, if a barnstorming baseball team came through, could hold his own on diamonds carved out of Georgia's red earth. But he hated the hot Georgia sun and the grueling work in the cotton fields. So, in 1916, he headed for Baltimore.

"I put in an application for a Pullman porter and told farming good-bye," said Mr. Davis. His first stop was the Bethlehem Steel Corp. in Sparrows Point, where he drove rivets. He also pitched semi-pro ball for the Baltimore Black Sox in those days before the Negro Leagues.

"I wasn't such a strong arm pitcher, but I could throw curves. I was a nasty pitcher. I made the ball do what I wanted it to do," said Mr. Davis, who stands 5 feet 9 inches tall.

He wanted to make a living as a baseball player and play against white baseball teams. But that was not possible.

"They didn't mix players on the teams," he said. "It was white against white and colored against colored. It was Jim Crow then."

In 1919, he got the Pullman porter job. At today's celebration, his black uniform with its silver and brass buttons bearing the name "Pullman" will be displayed. On the sleeves, white stripes will indicate the 43 years he served. Mr. Davis retired Oct. 31, 1962.

At one time, the porters made $20 a month, plus tips. Yet, it was steady work, a position of respect. Robert McGoings, whom Mr. Riley helped get a job working in the dining-car section of the B&O railroad, remembers the work "was about the best job a nonprofessional person could have as far as blacks go, or other minorities."

"Most Pullman porters took pride in their job," said Mr. McGoings, 77. "They were handling the best people."

These passengers often took the porters, perhaps the only blacks they came in frequent contact with, into their confidences. Some rode certain trains just to get a certain porter. Others humiliated them. Some white passengers called them "George."

"They would call any black railroad man George, and most of the northern porters resented it to high heaven and hell," said Mr. McGoings. "It was just a name they stuck on blacks."

The porters also had to contend with longer hours and less pay. In 1925, Mr. Randolph started organizing the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. The bitter, 12-year fight ended when the Pullman Co. recognized the organization, making it the nation's first black labor organization to be recognized by a major corporation.

Mr. Davis helped win that battle. He defied the railroad when he let Mr. Randolph organize the union's Baltimore Division in his home. He could have lost his job, as many others did. But he was unperturbed.

"Davis was always strong-minded," said Mr. McGoings, who lives in Baltimore.

Ten years ago, Mr. Davis broke both hips, and moved in with his niece, Phyllis Mash, and her husband, Harry. To care for her uncle, Mrs. Mash took early retirement from the Federal Reserve Bank in Baltimore.

One hundred years of life has dimmed some of Mr. Davis' memories. He can recite a school boy's poem learned almost 80 years ago about a greedy girl who made him spend his only 50 cents, but he can't remember how he met his wife, Mary Sedonia Davis, to whom he was married for 56 years. She died in 1980. He does, however, remember this: "I liked her when I first saw her. I liked her color, shape and figure."

And, bits of his humor still shine through. He said he once ordered a steak and the waitress asked how he wanted it cooked. He replied: "Don't worry about it. Just saw the horns off of that steer and drive it in here."

"He used to be really sharp in his day," said his Mrs. Mash, his niece. "They didn't pull anything over on him. He kept them on a tightrope."

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