His energy ignited the efforts for labor and civil rights Exhibit: A. Philip Randolph's union brought dignity to the men who worked on the trains.

October 15, 1997|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

Long before he was the grandfather of civil rights, A. Philip Randolph was "the most dangerous Negro in America."

In 1917, the Cleveland, Ohio, authorities threw him in jail for speaking against prejudice, then released him when he promised to get out of town. His union work cost him more than a few jobs, but he never stopped, and in the end he helped change America.

"A. Philip Randolph, 1889-1979" begins a six-week run today at the B & O Railroad Museum. It traces Randolph's life as union leader, civil rights activist and crusader for justice. A videotaped interview from 1970 offers a chance to hear the man's own words.

The exhibit, sponsored by the AFL-CIO, gives the public a chance "to view and to evaluate the contributions of one of the most notable public figures of the twentieth century," according to the museum.

Randolph's last great triumph came with the 1963 March on Washington. Martin Luther King Jr. immortalized that day with his "I Have A Dream" speech. But Randolph was there, too, in the background, a 74-year-old elder statesman, veteran of nearly 50 years in the struggle.

His rise began in the 1920s and 1930s when he and others fought the Pullman Company to organize the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first recognized union for blacks. He had come a long way from his hometown in Crescent City, Fla. He was a well-known union man and editor of the Messenger, a radical newspaper he co-founded with a fellow socialist. Though he was not a porter, the Pullman workers sought him out.

The black men who shined shoes, made up sleeping berths and ran errands for rail passengers were an indispensable, often abused part of the trains they rode. Yet they were much-admired members of their communities. Thurgood Marshall worked the Pullmans, as did E.D. Nixon, who later organized the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott. Train work was good, solid,

relatively well-paying work.

"I noticed if the movies or some writers were trying to portray minorities living with some economic security, they always showed a railroad man," says Robert J. McGoings, 80. He spent 42 years on the rails, most of them with the B & O. "The Pullman porter thought himself, or carried himself a little better than the waiters or cooks. The Pullman porter job was a little more prestigious."

But it could be hard work. Their shifts ran for 24 hours. They worked at the beck and call of Pullman riders. It didn't matter when the call came. When it came, the porter had to be ready to provide service with a smile.

"If you were a Pullman porter in the '30s, God help you if you had a bad day," says Shawn Cunningham, railroad historian and director of the Civil War Museum. "If someone from the Pullman Company went through that car and you were sleeping, you were in trouble."

Yet, McGoings wanted a piece of this life. In the 1930s, he was a young man attending night school at Douglass High School in Baltimore, looking for a way to continue his education at Morgan College. He had a scholarship, but it wouldn't cover the entire bill.

An older friend, Riley Marcilous Davis, tried to get him on with Pullman. Davis was a porter working trains like the California Zephyr and Capitol Limited. He was a sharp dresser, an impressive man who had seen the country.

"I admired him for one because of the stories he could tell about traveling," says McGoings, sitting in his Edmondson Village home. "He was always the best-dressed man in the church."

Davis also was a union man. He defied the Pullman Company by letting Randolph organize the union's Baltimore Division in his home. He could have lost his job. Many did for their union #F activities. Some were beaten, or put off trains in the middle of nowhere.

Randolph and others fought Pullman from 1925 to 1937. They threatened a strike, but called it off when none of the other unions backed them. Finally, the company reached a collective bargaining agreement with the union. Two years later, McGoings tried to become a porter, but was rejected. At 21, he was too young.

"It was a big disappointment to me," says McGoings. Porters had to be 25 or older. "They wanted someone fairly settled in age."

Instead of being a Pullman porter, McGoings became a dining and club car waiter with the B & O. Still, he joined the brotherhood of black men working the rails. They helped each other out, bartered a decent night's sleep in an open bunk for a good breakfast. Some worked 20 days straight and kidded each other about what might be going on back home. They invented their own back-door man and named him "Shorty."

"Shorty's at home right now," says McGoings, laughing and recalling the style of banter that drove some men to quit. "He's wearing your bathrobe, drinking your bourbon and smoking your cigars. When you get home, you get fatback and beans. Not Shorty. Shorty's eating steak."

L Randolph's union brought better hours and pay to this world.

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