In the heyday of train travel, before airplanes overtook the gleaming locomotives that clicked and chugged from one end of the country and back, uniformed Pullman porters were a familiar sight.
Tens of thousands of African-Americans worked as porters on the trains, attending to the needs of first-class passengers in Pullman sleeper cars since 1868. Amtrak estimates that 200 former porters are still living and plans to honor about 20 of them Saturday in Philadelphia as part of National Train Day.
Frank Rollins, 93, is coming from Houston to take part in the celebration. The retired restaurant owner and jeweler worked on the rails from 1936 to 1945, first as a cook with the Illinois Central Railroad and later as a porter.
Although they earned little, Pullman porters helped build America's black middle class. Racism wasn't uncommon, with passengers often calling them "George," for George Pullman, inventor of the sleeper car, regardless of their first names.
Rollins tells NPR's Michele Norris that the railway wanted Southern boys to run the dining cars because "they thought they had a certain personality and a certain demeanor that satisfied the Southern passengers better than the boys who came from Chicago."
During the rigorous training to become a porter, Rollins says he learned how to make up the beds in the train cars and break them down — and how to deal with discrimination.
His trainer liked to talk about the job of serving the public for the Pullman Company. "He said, 'Look you're going to run into some indignities. And you don't have to accept them. Whenever any passenger makes you unhappy about anything, you can just speak your mind — you don't have to take that stuff — but you wait until you get back to the men's room by yourself,'" Rollins says.
Although he gladly served the passengers and had more happy experiences as a porter than unhappy ones, Rollins says he "wasn't willing to be humiliated."
"You would run into people who obviously had a mean streak in them toward black people," Rollins says. "Most of those people would come from the South. Particularly when they had a few drinks, they like to tell these race jokes. Of course, I always showed resentment and they could tell that pretty quickly.
"One of the indignities that I suffered frequently was the voice that I had," he adds. "They thought I had a singing voice, and turns out that I can't sing a note. They would say, 'Sing for us.' And I'd say, 'But I can't sing.' They would say, 'Oh — using the N word — can sing and dance.' There weren't a lot of unhappy moments in that. But like I say, I somehow made contact with them very early that I was willing to serve them, but I wasn't willing to be a showman."
One thing that stayed with him, Rollins says, was when he encountered a group of young men traveling from Fort Bragg, N.C., to Brownwood, Texas. It was the first time they'd been on a train, and there was "all kinds of raw stuff about them," he notes.
"I used to have a little speech that I'd make," Rollins says. "I would walk into the car, and I would say, 'May I have your attention please. My name is Frank Rollins. If you can't remember that, that's OK. You can call me porter — it's right here on the cap, you can be able to remember that. Just don't call me 'boy' and don't call me George.'"
Everyone on the train was quiet, Rollins says, and then they started calling him "Mister Frank."
"Ordinarily, they would have been very hostile and made a black person's life a little miserable. ... But somehow that initial meeting made us kind of close — so much so that we did the whole trip and got to the end and one of them walked in as we were approaching the base where we were going and asked to have my porters cap," Rollins says. "I gave them the cap and thought he was going to go clown around with it. After about a half hour, he came back and had almost $50 in the cap. And these were poor boys.'
They also wrote him a letter that Rollins says he's trying to find to take to this weekend's celebration.
"They all listed their names and gave a great compliment on the service I had given them on this trip," he says. "It really impressed me. This was probably the only thing I kept from my days on the railroad."