As mentioned in our previous post, we are collecting Pullman porter stories throughout the run of Pullman Porter Blues. We are excited to kick off our series, entitled All Aboard: Stories from the Pullman Trains, with David Pitts's article on Rosina Tucker. As the wife of a Pullman porter, Mrs. Tucker was deeply involved in early efforts to organize the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.The author first met Rosina Tucker in 1982 when she was 100 years old. This article is based on his interviews with her between then and 1987 when she died at the age of 105.
ROSINA TUCKER - A CENTURY OF COMMITMENT
By David Pitts
USIA Staff Writer
She marched into his boss's office, banged on the table, and commanded, "You put my husband back on his job, or I'll be back." Next day, her husband was back on the trains.
Not many women, especially black women, did things like that in the 1930's. But Rosina Tucker was hardly ordinary. In the days when Jim Crow (the system of segregation in the South) reigned supreme and civil rights were only a vision, she was an outspoken union and civil rights activist at a time when it was difficult to be either.
In 1982, after decades of laboring in anonymity, Tucker became a celebrity. At the age of 100, she narrated the award-winning, PBS documentary, "Miles of Smiles, Years of Struggle." The film chronicled the story of the pullman porters' struggle to form a union.
She always said she was most proud of her role in building that union, which was started in 1925 in Harlem, New York by Ashley Totten, a railroad porter, and A. Philip Randolph, the legendary civil rights leader, who, almost four decades later, organized the 1963 March on Washington.
Tucker often recalled that in the early days, "we would have to act in secret because if the management found out, they would fire people. That's why, in one sense, it was easier for the wives to do the work. That's how I got involved." She traveled widely, recruiting members for the union at railroad centers all over the country. She said that she, and the other organizers, were determined to change the conditions under which pullman porters then worked -- "long hours, low pay, and zero job security."
"But it wasn't only the pay and hours that were bad," Tucker remembered. "Pullman porters were all black. They were called 'George' and could be fired just for not smiling frequently and not looking happy."
Progress was slow, but in 1937 the effort paid off. The Pullman company recognized the union and signed an agreement, the first ever between a large U.S. corporation and a black union. In September 1938, the union wives established the International Ladies Auxiliary. Tucker became its first secretary-treasurer.
In those days, the efforts of the women were not always welcomed, even by their husbands. "The role of women in the struggle has not been appreciated until recently, because too often the efforts of women were discounted and not seen as important. It is hard even to document what the women did," said Paul Wagoner, the producer of the television documentary on the Brotherhood.
The formation of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters was important historically not only for the railroad porters, but also for all African Americans, Wagoner added. "The union laid the foundation for the modern civil rights movement. The importance of the Brotherhood was that it proved blacks could organize, and it gave all black people hope. The civil rights movement (of the 1960's) would probably have happened without the Brotherhood. But it would have been more difficult."
In her later years, long after the successful fight to form the union, Tucker became active in civil rights organizations and was still picketing stores and businesses she didn't think were fair to blacks well into her nineties.
She knew many of the great civil rights leaders of our time, including A. Philip Randolph whom she remembers "as a determined, but quiet man," Mary McLeod Bethune, "a great speaker, but not very personable," and E.D. Nixon, "who deserves more credit than he gets for helping to organize the Montgomery Bus Boycott."
Rosina Tucker was born in 1882, on 4th Street in northwest Washington, less than two decades after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation freeing the slaves. The daughter of former slaves who had nine children in all, she said her parents "never talked to us about their days as slaves. Very few former slaves talked about it. I overheard them talking to each other. But they didn't discuss it with the children."
One story Tucker overheard her father telling involved the meager amounts of food he was given as a slave, even on special occasions. "On Thanksgiving, he and the other slaves were not allowed to have any turkey, but they were allowed to chew on the string with which the turkey was tied," she said. Tucker's mother, however, fared better. "She worked in the master's house and took the food she needed when nobody was looking."
After attaining his freedom, her father, who taught himself to read and write, became a shoemaker. "He was always very protective of us and never wanted us to go into domestic service," she recalled. "He was also very strict and stressed that we should always be cautious about what we say to people. I feel that this was connected to slavery since in those days it was dangerous for black children to speak too freely. Black parents felt they had to control their children for their own safety."
Nevertheless, her memories of her childhood were "mostly happy." Her father, who learned to play the organ, "passed on his love of music to us. I became a church organist at the age of 12."
Her home life provided refuge from the racial turbulence then gathering steam across the nation. Just six years before she was born, federal troops were withdrawn from South Carolina, signaling a wider federal pullback from the former slave states. That action, among others, doomed Reconstruction, the brief period following the Civil War in which African Americans made major strides toward full freedom.
At the dawn of Rosina Tucker's birth, the South was on the road back toward unbending white supremacy. Within a decade, the process of disenfranchising blacks began, with Mississippi leading the way in 1890. Blacks were effectively ejected from the voting booths of South Carolina in 1895, Louisiana in 1898, North Carolina in 1900, Alabama in 1901, and Georgia in 1908. In 1896, the U.S. Supreme Court legitimized segregation with its infamous "separate but equal" ruling that would not be reversed until 1954.
In 1902, when Tucker was 20, blacks effectively were prevented from voting in Virginia, the state where her parents had been reared in slavery. For more than five decades until well into the mid-twentieth century, segregation would become a way of life throughout the former Confederacy.
Tucker remembers it "as a sobering experience. The new century brought crushing new burdens for us, instead of freedom and equality." But she recalled that she felt insulated, to a degree, by her close-knit family and because she lived in Washington, where, even then, there was a sizable black population. "The block on which we lived was fully integrated -- more so than today. While we didn't run in and out of each other's houses, there was a certain amount of respect between the races," in the capital city, she said.
"But life got harder immediately you left Washington," she remembered. "You could get on the streetcar in Washington, and they couldn't ask you to move to a Jim Crow section. But once you got to Alexandria (in Virginia), they told you to go to a Jim Crow car." Even so, segregation did not become entrenched in Virginia until the early 1900's so Tucker, and others her age, were spared these indignities when they were children. "In any case, at that time they used boats and we used to go down to Alexandria by boat to see our grandmother," she added.
Tucker recalled that life "began to get easier for blacks after World War I when the organizing began in earnest, and African American writers and artists began to seize the world's imagination. After World War II, when the civil rights movement got under way, we could see the light at the end of the tunnel, that segregation would be defeated, and that our civil rights would be written into our laws and the Constitution." With the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965, the rights for which Rosina Tucker, and thousands of others, had long struggled finally were secured.
It has taken many years, but at the end of her long life, Tucker's view was that "blacks have made substantial progress. But we have a long way to go." She often talked -- proudly -- of her long years of activism, which stretched to almost half the life of this Republic. But she would always stress as well that she lived in the present, not the past.
In the closing years of her life, she gave lectures across the country, and appeared before congressional committees, in particular to lobby for greater protection for senior citizens. The once elegant neighborhood in which she lived had long since fallen into decline. But she refused to leave the house she had lived in since 1918, even though she lived there alone. Her husband and relatives were long gone. Her only son died young -- in 1945.
Losing loved ones and friends is an inevitable consequence of living long enough. But Rosina Tucker was never lonely in her last years. She received numerous awards from organizations such as the NAACP, the nation's oldest civil rights organization, and the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. She seemed most content in her work for the Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church. She was a member of the congregation for 65 years. Everyone there knew her as "Mother Tucker" and children would often surround her, demanding to hear stories of her life long ago.
In 1987 -- on a beautiful spring day -- Rosina Tucker died, 105 years after her birth during the presidency of Chester A. Arthur. At her funeral, one speaker remarked on the landmark events in American history through which she had lived, recalling that she had been a mourner at the funeral of Frederick Douglass (the noted abolitionist) in 1895, and an organizer at the 1963 March on Washington, at which Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his unforgettable, "I have a dream," speech. She was here so long, remembered another speaker, that she "experienced life before segregation, during segregation and after segregation."
Following her death, an unpublished autobiography was discovered that she authored in her nineties. In it, she wrote, "Today is my day, as it is your day. Although I live far removed from the time when I was born, I do not feel that my heart should dwell in the past. It is in the future. While I live, let not my life be in vain. And when I depart, may there be remembrance of me and my life as I have lived it."