Recalling their years of service on the B&O

Railroad: Three retirees recount the pride they took in their jobs as a porter, a waiter and a chef while working on the B&O in the mid-20th century.

February 09, 2003|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

Train travel once was the epitome of civilized grace, with dinner served out of Washington on linen tablecloths set with heavy blue plates and polished silver. Filet mignon - the top of the first-class menu - cost $4.50. The rolls were freshly baked. And breakfast often came with St. Louis outside the window.

Providing that kind of service was hard work, especially when the dining room is rocking and rolling along the tracks. But it was a life rich with zest, to hear three retired railroad employees tell it yesterday.

Maggie Hudson's eyes sparkled as she told train tales to a rapt audience gathered inside a sleek, pale-blue dining car at the B&O Railroad Museum. She belonged to the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters - the first recognized African-American labor union. As the third "porterette" ever to work on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, starting in the 1940s, she made the same hourly wage as the male porters she worked alongside for 36 years.

In an oral history project, the museum invited Hudson, the Rev. James Kearse and James Watkins - all Marylanders in their early 80s - to share their memories of working on the B&O Railroad in the mid-20th century.

The panel is part of a monthlong exhibit at the museum roundhouse titled "Porters, Waiters and Chefs: Portraits of Railroad Hospitality on the B&O Railroad." The museum's executive director, Courtney Wilson, said, "The time is now to document this." The exhibit may be extended to join others as part of a yearlong celebration of the 175 years since the founding of the B&O.

Impeccable training

Dignity is hard to document, but Shawn M. Heine, director of museum collections, said that was foremost in his mind while putting together the porters, waiters and chefs program. "They're very proud of their craft, and their training was impeccable," he said.

Kearse, 80, who lives in Fort Washington, said his 18 years as a waiter on the B&O were the best of his life. It was a "privilege to assist passengers" on a powerhouse railroad, he said, an avenue of advancement for black men that he first noticed as a boy reading magazines in his native North Carolina.

When a manager at a shoe store in Washington denied him the chance for promotion in 1944, Kearse said, he quit that day. A few days later, he was hired by the B&O in Baltimore and joined an exacting world where the railroad waiters were expected to keep their shoes polished, pants pressed, hair groomed and fingernails clean.

"You never saw any raggedy people on the Capitol Limited," Kearse said.

Smiles were also part of the uniform, he said.

Now and then the staff had to contend with racial slurs. Kearse recalled one female passenger who addressed him by the wrong name. "George, bring me scotch and soda," he remembered her saying, even though the name tag he wore clearly showed his first name as James. The misidentification was a hurtful name for black men working on the railroad, Kearse said, stemming from the first name of the railroad magnate who invented the sleeping car, George Pullman.

What made it different

But the B&O stood apart from other railroads because it was never segregated - a source of pride for the three panelists.

The Northern and Midwestern cities were "cordial," the speakers said, and they encountered much less prejudice and hostility there than they would have in the South in the Jim Crow era.

Watkins, a city resident, said, "B&O never ran south, and that made all the difference in the world."

A chef for 32 years, he said he was amazed at how much could be done in the small, hot kitchen space - where chefs also observed a strict dress code. Often, 450 dinners had to be cooked in the cramped quarters, which occasionally rocked from side to side.

Presidential fare

Watkins said he prepared dinners for two presidents - Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman - while they traveled in their private compartments. He is considering collecting his railroad recipes in a book.

Del. Tony E. Fulton, a Baltimore Democrat, became teary-eyed listening to the three in the dining car because the setting reminded him of his late father, George Fulton, a chef on the B&O.

"It was brutal [for him] to be away from home for two weeks at a time," Fulton recalled, "working 16-hour days, in another place and time. It was the best of times and the worst of times. The past is being lost as we sit here."

`A good spirit'

Three 13-year-old girls from Harrisburg, Pa., listened closely to the old-time ways of working life on a train.

"They've been through so much and have such a good spirit," said Brittaney Shade.

"It's cool how people got dressed up just for dinner," Jessica Smith said.

"They know the cars inside out," Lauren Chavey said.

During question time, Kearse was asked what his favorite train food was. He answered, "Anything Jimmy Watkins cooked."

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