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View Diary: Separate: 117 years of fighting transportation segregation (20 comments)

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  •  A brief remembrance of my ride on a segregated (5+ / 0-)

    southern bound train from Union Station in Washington D.C. in 1937. I was 5 years old when my father died suddenly from injuries he suffered in World War I. My grief stricken mother decided that she needed a greater measure of freedom to deal with the numerous problems of selling our house and resolving other insurance issues. We lived in Boston Massachusetts and my mother arranged for me to spend a year with my grandparents in Athens Georgia. She also decided to send my loving dog buddy, who was my pal and personal guardian (from the day I was born) along on the train south with me. I can only assume that as a result of her grief, my mother certainly was not thinking clearly when she decided to send a 5 year old child from Massachusetts to Georgia unescorted completely alone.

    Acting on the advice of a friend whose relative was a Pullman porter working out of South Station in Boston; she was put in contact with a porter who was also working the trains out of Boston. Once located she paid the gentleman to "look out for me" onboard the train, and to make sure I made it onto the connecting train out of Union Station in Washington D.C. okay. Since my grandfather had been alerted to pick me up when I arrived in Georgia, she gave no further thought to the arrangements for my train trip.

    Unfortunately she overlooked two important problems for a 5 year old African-American child making such a train trip. The first was that all trains leaving Washington D.C. were segregated, and the second was that my dog buddy had to ride in the baggage car. When my train reached Washington D.C. the porter that was "keeping an eye" on me had to contact some other porter down in D.C. who would be working the train scheduled to leave for Georgia, Although the secondary contact would be another Negro porter it is likely that it would be somebody that he did not know personally. So not only would he have to talk this stranger into taking the responsibility of looking out for a 5 year old boy, but he would have to negotiate a payment that would satisfy him for taking on the task.

    As I remember it the "secondary/relief" porter was extremely busy and evidently was not excited about giving up his break time to walk the entire distance of the train in order to keep an eye on me, so needless to say I didn't see much of him until the train reached my stop in Georgia.

    The segregated car that I was riding in was the first car after the locomotive. It was also had an extremely old well-worn interior. The fabric on the seats was thread bare and in on many seats had sizeable holes in it with the stuffing protruding out. The toilet facilities on both ends of the car were not functioning, and at one end the commode did not flush but it still had been used a number of times in addition to providing a smelly home to a number of fast multiplying flies. There were no fans or air conditioning in the segregated car, so virtually all of the windows had been opened wide by the boarding passengers trying to cope with the extremely hot Washington summer heat while the train was waiting in the station.

    When the train finally pulled out it entered a long underground tunnel which caused all the black burning suffocating fumes belching back from the locomotive's stacks to flood in through the open windows of the segregated car. All of the passengers started rushing about trying to quickly close the windows to keep the acrid smoke out only to find that some windows were permanently stuck in the open position. By the time the train finally exited the tunnel and was slowly picking up speed in the fresh open air, our car was so filled with smoke that you could hardly see the person sitting across the aisle from you. The smoke finally cleared out about an hour later with all of the windows re-opened. There was a brief flurry of excitement in the car as one woman tainted from the heat and the concentrated smoke. However she was eventually revived by several other women who managed to find some water which they used to aid her.

    From time to me we would see different porters come into our car, but it was generally a quick trip used to sell or hustle something to the black passengers. Negro passengers in the segregated car could not leave the car or go into any other part of the rest of the train, so there was no way to get something to eat during the entire journey from Washington. Whenever the train stopped in a major city, local Negro vendors selling sandwiches, and a few pies and cakes would board the car and walk the aisle calling out the type of food products that they were selling. This sometime happened in the middle of the night so many passengers were awakened by these vendors. However many black women experienced in riding the trains under segregated conditions originally brought their own shopping bags onboard filled with numerous containers of delicious smelling home cooked food.

    When I finally reached my stop in Athens Georgia my “secondary/relief” porter came running all out of breath down the aisle to gather me up and get me off the train. He escorted me out onto the side of the train where I was warmly greeted by my smiling grandfather, who graciously ignored the smiling porter’s hand extended outward in an obvious signal requesting a “well done” tip. However, I refused to move asking repeatedly, where was Buddy? My grandfather asked me over raised eyebrows, who is Buddy? When I told him Buddy was my dog, he told me that Buddy wasn't here right now, and that he would come back and get Buddy in the morning. Needless to say I was heartbroken and I cried for days, but I never saw Buddy again. This experience was the first real heartbreak in my lifetime and in those days the loss of a pet belonging to a little 5 year old Negro boy was of less importance than a three day old soiled newspaper left on a bench inside Union Station.

    In retrospect there was no way that Buddy could have completed the journey south with me as he rode in the baggage car as far as Washington. However the Negro passengers confined to the segregated car in Washington had to fetch their entire luggage from the baggage car of any (non-segregated) train that they arrived on, and personally move it to the segregated car. If black passengers had some extra money and were lucky enough to find a willing porter then they could get their bags put on the segregated car. (The Southern Railway mandatory priority for all porters was to service the white passengers, hence during the boarding time just about all of the porters were kept extremely busy waiting on white passengers.) It was the Southern Railway policy at the time that luggage belonging to Negro passengers were not put in the baggage car on southern bound trains. So it is my theory that poor Buddy never made it out of the baggage car of the Boston train before my southern bound train left Washington. Buddy was a beautiful dog and my lifelong hope has been that he was eventually found and adopted by some caring family.

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