Riley M. Davis, 102, helped organize black railroad union

February 10, 1997|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Riley Marcilous Davis, who helped to organize the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters during his long railroading career, died of pneumonia Tuesday at Harbor Hospital Center. He was 102 and lived in Glen Burnie.

In 1919, Mr. Davis went to work for the Pullman Co.

"He liked traveling and enjoyed meeting people," said Robert McGoings of Baltimore, a longtime friend, whom Mr. Davis helped to get a job on Baltimore and Ohio Railroad dining cars.

"He went all over the country and even worked on presidential specials, where he met President Franklin D. Roosevelt," Mr. McGoings said.

Pullman porters were highly respected railroaders, who made up berths, shined shoes and handled the operation of the sleeping cars.

Despite the long hours and time away from home, the porters were paid only $20 a month plus tips. Some passengers humiliated them by calling them "George," for the company founder George Mortimer Pullman.

In 1925, A. Philip Randolph began organizing the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Mr. Davis helped and also risked his job by letting Mr. Randolph use his home as headquarters for the union's Baltimore division.

Twelve years later, the Pullman Co. recognized the union, making it the first black labor organization to be accepted by a major corporation.

One of the first concessions by the company was to allow the porters to wear name tags as part of their uniform -- thus ending the practice of porters being called "George."

During his career, Mr. Davis manned B&O Pullman cars on runs from Baltimore to Chicago and New York, working on famous trains, such as the Capitol Limited, the Royal Blue and the National Limited.

He retired from the railroad in 1962, then worked for eight years transporting patients for the Baltimore Health Department.

A former resident of West Baltimore, he was born and raised in Americus, Ga., the fourth of 14 children. His father was a share-cropper.

In 1916, he left home and came to Baltimore to work at Bethlehem Steel Corp.'s Sparrows Point shipyard.

In his leisure time, he pitched semiprofessional ball for the Baltimore Black Sox.

For 75 years, he was a member of the First Apostolic Faith Church, Lombard and Caroline streets in Baltimore, where he was an honorary bishop and where services were held Saturday.

He was married for 56 years to the former Mary Sedonia Davis, who died in 1980.

Mr. Davis is survived by three nephews, Walter Davis of Pasadena, John Davis of Baltimore and Byron Davis of Glen Burnie; and four nieces, June Bass, Phyllis Mash and Sylvia Thomas, all of Glen Burnie, and Doris Broome of Chicago.

Pub Date: 2/10/97

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