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The union that built the black middle class

Commentary by Black Kos Editor Denise Oliver-Velez

I spent yesterday, Labor Day, thinking about the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, and my family ties to that union who played such an important role in black history.

One of the books I suggest you read if you are interested in both black history and sociology and the development of the labor movement is Rising from the Rails: Pullman Porters and the Making of the Black Middle Class, by Larry Tye

Although Tye focuses on Pullman porters and the formation of the black middle class, his analysis of class perceptions and race relations reverberates to the current day. Following Reconstruction, industrialist George Pullman took advantage of the limited opportunities available for freedmen, hiring and exploiting blacks--the darker the better--to serve as porters on his railroad. The porters suffered low wages, long hours, and weeks if not months away from home. In addition, they were expected to adopt a servile demeanor to provide comfort to the mostly white patrons of the Pullman sleeping cars. But the upside was employment, travel, and middle-class values and opportunities. Moreover, the fight for union recognition through A. Phillip Randolph's leadership was the basis for progress for blacks during the pre-civil rights era. The porters' labor dispute and efforts to include blacks in more favorable positions in the war industry led to the first march on Washington. Tye also explores the tension between the perception of Pullman porters as docile servants and their challenge to the status quo. Vernon Ford
James A. Miller, professor of English and American Studies and director of Africana Studies at George Washington University, reviews Tye's book in A quiet route to revolution:Pullman porters played role as ‘agents of change’
Tye depicts the struggle of the porters in heroic terms, casting them as the vanguard of a black community seeking to negotiate its relationship to an American society whose terms, rituals, and etiquette -- at least in the decades following the Civil War -- remained remote and unfamiliar: "Porters were agents of change. . . . They carried radical music like jazz and blues from big cities to outlying burgs. They brought seditious ideas about freedom and tolerance from the urban North to the segregated South. And when white riders left behind newspapers and magazines, porters picked up bits of news and new ways of doing things, refining them in each place they visited, and leaving behind a town or village that was a bit less insular and parochial."What they saw and read changed them, too. It made porters determined that their children would get the formal learning they had been denied. . . . Through their time on the train these black porters learned the ways of a white world most had only vague exposure to before, coming to know how it worked and how to work with it."

Tye's desire to place a human face on these workers is very much at the heart of "Rising From the Rails." Drawing upon extensive and meticulous research -- as well as in-depth interviews with 40 or so former porters and their families -- he depicts the absorbing saga of the Pullman porter, a story firmly rooted in the dynamic growth of the American railroad in the years following the Civil War. It is a tale populated by larger-than-life figures like Pullman, the visionary and ruthless capitalist whose unconventional tactics and attitudes qualified him, in Tye's view, as a racial "moderate if not a reformer"; Robert Todd Lincoln, the son of the Great Emancipator, who presided over an era marked by both unprecedented growth and labor repression at the Pullman Co.; and A. Philip Randolph, "Saint Philip," the eminent and outspoken Socialist and labor leader who -- along with Milton P. Webster, Ashley L. Totten, and C. L. Dellums -- spearheaded the effort that led to the triumphant emergence of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in 1937.

The story does not end there, for Tye makes a compelling case for the intricate connections between the porters' struggles for economic justice and the quickening pace of the civil rights movement in the 20th century -- from the formation of the National Negro Congress in the mid-1930s to Randolph's threatened 1941 march on Washington to the 1963 march on Washington, and beyond. Throughout, Tye sustains our interest, weaving together several levels of narrative while keeping the stories of ordinary porters squarely at the center. The result is a lively and engaging chronicle that adds yet another dimension to the historical record.

Tye's book later became the basis for a documentary film with the same name.

Too often when we discuss the civil rights movement we don't tie it in with the labor movement and the first powerful black union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.

You won't have to go very far, or dig very deep to find black Americans who can tell you stories about fathers, or grandfathers or uncles who worked as Pullman porters and waiters.

My grandfather, my mom's dad, Dennis Presley Roberts, is one of those stories.  

Born on Jun 24 1874, in Loudoun County Virginia, he was the son of two former slaves. His mother swore that all of her children would become educated, and Dennis took on that task, not only for himself, but for all his brothers and sisters. He learned to read and write in a one room schoolhouse, and migrated to nearby Washington DC, to work as a waiter, and attend Wayland Seminary (which merged with Virginia Union) which he graduated from in 1897. Not content to become (as he put it) a "jack-leg preacher", he decided not to further his education, and the economic pressures to assist his younger brothers and sisters pushed him to taking a job on the railroad.  

Dennis was canny about finance, and saved his salary and every tip from the elite whites he waited on daily, to buy houses. Recognizing the need for black apartments in the growing black metropolis of DC, Dennis bought first one building, and then another. One of the buildings he owned was at 1523 T Street NW. (I had to laugh when I looked up what that building is worth now - $1,132,020).  As the self-appointed patriarch of the family he was a bit of a martinet. Just like the trains ran on time granddaddy Dennis did everything on a schedule. He wore a watch on a chain which he constantly referred to. He also brooked no talk back. He ordered the lives of his siblings, telling John to teach,  Joseph to go to medical school, James was to become a dentist, and that the girls, Hannah and Martha would go to teachers college. He helped them all pay their school fees.

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He was soft-spoken, and always impeccably dressed. My mom says she never saw him in his shirtsleeves, though he did have a smoking jacket he wore when he was "relaxed". In 1907 he married a beautiful young woman, also from Loudoun County who was working as a domestic in New Jersey, and soon moved his young family to New London Connecticut, since by that time he was working on the New York to New Haven line.  After the birth of his first  four children, he relocated the family to the Bronx, where his wife died after giving birth to my mom. Undaunted, he refused to split up his children and parcel them out to different relatives.  Instead, he ordered his widowed sister Martha to leave DC, used his funds to help establish his younger brother the doctor in Philadelphia, helping him buy a large home, and moved Martha and the children in with Dr. Joe.  Joe's practice flourished, and as a consequence my mom was raised in a home with a cook, a laundress and two maids. Granddaddy Dennis bought another building in Philly with an ice cream parlor on the ground floor for Martha to run.  

He never stopped working the trains. Once a month he would arrive in Philadelphia to "inspect" his children and monitor their schooling and manners.  My mother remembers him ruefully stating that he would earn more money in tips if he adopted an uneducated speech pattern and obsequious attitude, but there was no way he was going to bend.  He raised his children to be Negro and proud and to never cross a picket line. Family members of the porters got to travel the railroad free, and my mom used to go each summer down to DC from Philly, traveling under the watchful eye of his "brother" waiters and porters. It was like having a family that extended across the U.S.  

His story is really no different than that of his brother porters. White passengers saw only black servants, never imagining that these men were buying property, sending their progeny to colleges and universities, and funding the growing civil rights movement.   Their union, led by socialist A.Philip Randolph, would become a powerful voice for change, affecting not only the segregated labor movement, but the course of the nation.

There are many other books and films exploring the Pullman porter's lives and union movement. California Newsreel distributes Miles of Smiles, Years of Struggle, winner of four regional Emmy Awards, produced by Jack Santino and Paul Wagner. Jack Santino is the author of the book, Miles of Smiles, Years of Struggle – Stories of Black Pullman Porters.

Miles of Smiles chronicles the organizing of the first black trade union - the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. This inspiring story of the Pullman porters provides one of the few accounts of African American working life between the Civil War and World War II.

Miles of Smiles describes the harsh discrimination which lay behind the porters' smiling service. Narrator Rosina Tucker, a 100 year old union organizer and porter's widow, describes how after a 12 year struggle led by A. Philip Randolph, the porters won the first contract ever negotiated with black workers. Miles of Smiles both recovers an important chapter in the emergence of black America and reveals a key source of the Civil Rights movement.

Labor Day may have passed, but our labor to build a movement that will change this nation is no where near over. Black union members are still playing a key role in the struggle. They stand on the shoulders of the Brotherhood.

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                  News by dopper0189, Black Kos Managing Editor

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Issa Rae with an HBO deal to co-write (with Larry Wilmore) and star in her own series hasn’t completely abandoned her roots on the Web. Rae is best known  for creating and starring in The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl. Slate: Issa Rae Pokes Some Fun at the Black Church With The Choir.
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ssa Rae may have hit the big time with an HBO deal to co-write (with Larry Wilmore) and star in her own series, but she hasn’t completely abandoned her roots on the Web. The talented multi-hyphenate known for creating and starring in The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl has stayed busy producing other online projects, including Roomieloverfriends and Let Leslie Tell It. Her latest producing venture is The Choir, a comedy Web series about a church choir and its waning congregation.

The first episode, “Genesis,” directed by Rae, dropped yesterday, and the series shows promise. The opening scene, in which the choir performs an incredibly inappropriate rendition of Janet Jackson’s seductive “Any Time, Any Place” meant for Jesus, is hilariously subversive and (yes) awkward. The cast of choir members—including a feisty young woman who thinks the choir needs to “sex it up,” an older lady turned off by said young woman, and an interim minister struggling to get more people to join the congregation—leaves plenty of room for the series to explore the nuances of a black church.




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A new satire called “Dear White People” is currently in production in Minneapolis. It follows 4 college black students when a riot breaks out over a popular “African American” themed party that’s thrown by a group of white students. Color Lines: Take a Sneak Peek at the Satire ‘Dear White People’.
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A new satire called “Dear White People” is currently in production in Minneapolis. It follows the story of four black students at an Ivy League college where a riot breaks out over a popular “African American” themed party that’s thrown by a group of white students.

“With tongue planted firmly in cheek, the film will explore racial identity in ‘post-racial’ America while weaving a universal story of forging one’s unique path in the world,” writes Justin Simien, the show’s writer, director, and producer.



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Ebony's Lesli-Ann Lewis, who attended Chappelle's now infamous return to the stage in Connecticut, writes that the comedian did not have a meltdown and argues that the problem was with the audience. Ebony: Why Dave Chappelle Didn't 'Melt Down'.
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The Oddball "Funny or Die" tour was supposed to be Chappelle’s big return to stand up (again). Shorty after taking the stage -- to our massive applause -- someone in the front interrupted to ask if he was back for real this time. He answered "Yes." We all cheered.
He had started with some Paula Deen jokes that went over well when he had to stop again.

Maybe it was his gratuitous use of the N-word to a mostly White audience. Maybe it was the overpriced beer that, to my amazement, everyone seemed to keep buying. Whatever it was, there was a palpable change. The crowd got rowdier, louder, ruder. Folks started calling out random references to his past work (he informed us that if we ever see him in a Half Baked sequel, that means he's run completely out of money) and, most bizarrely, his 2006 Oprah interview.

After engaging some of the heckling politely, Chappelle had enough. "I’ve been up here a while now and I thought it was me but now I’m sure it’s you. There is definitely something wrong with you[,]" he told us. In other words, 'shut up and let me perform.' Not many did. Finally, he gave up and took his cigarettes and his water and sat on stage.

                               Dave Chappelle (Joshua Roberts/Getty Images)

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Crowdfunding through social media helps a small sustainability project to thrive and generate global impact. The Guardian: Kickstarting the Goat Dairy in Grenada.
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Like many other nations positioned outside of the economic centres of the world, Grenada is exploited for its nutrient-rich raw materials while production takes place elsewhere. This means we import the majority of our food after it has been processed and pumped full of preservatives, dyes and other chemicals. The Goat Dairy (TGD) seeks to break this cycle of dependence, which impacts the environment, and health of our people and costs the country millions of dollars each year.

According to the annual agriculture review conducted by Grenada's agriculture ministry, with assistance from the FAO and EU in 2009, the existing agro-processing and livestock sectors have major weaknesses: inconsistent quality, insufficient data collection and no long-term plan. The TGD aims to address some of these.

At Belmont Estate in Hermitage, St Patrick, we run a breeding programme which provides goats from good milking stock affordably available for farmers and families. We also consult, provide education opportunities and advocate for further support for rural small farmers and youth, who are our main stakeholders.

Our herd of 35 goats provides us with the opportunity to conduct research on the effectiveness of a range of fresh locally grown feed, such as Gliricidia, Moringa and other grasses, which we are growing in larger plots. The milk from our herd along with milk purchased from other local farmers is processed into a variety of pre-seasoned blends of chevre cheese and chocolate delights made with cocoa from the Grenada Chocolate Company. The proceeds from the sale of these dairy products along with our rich compost covers roughly 70% cost of our project.

Goats give milk, which is used to make dairy products such as cheese, and their manure is used as a natural fertiliser in agriculture. Photograph: Nancy Palmieri/AP

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A small glimmer of sunshine..... The Guardian: Somalia celebrates that ultimate symbol of recovery: the return of TEDx
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Along with a gourmet coffee shop, a literary festival and a rush of intrepid tourists, the staging of a TEDx event is one of those apparent symbols offered as proof that a war-torn country is normalising and even having fun.

The second TEDxMogadishu takes place in the capital of Somalia on Saturday and will be streamed live on the internet. Speakers include Iman Elman, a 21-year-old female military commander in charge of a battalion of nearly 100 men, and Mohamed Mahamoud Sheik, who opened Mogadishu's first dry cleaner in 20 years after noticing men carrying their suits on planes to get them cleaned in Nairobi.

A spin-off from TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) talks in California, the TEDx format of smaller events – "ideas worth spreading" – has caught on around the world with events held 7,500 times in more than 150 countries. These include Baghdad and Tripoli, but organisers say Mogadishu is still the toughest security challenge.

The low-budget debut event last year suffered some teething troubles but was generally regarded a success. The sequel was due to take place in June but was postponed after the Islamist militant group al-Shabaab attacked a UN base, killing eight employees and five Somali civilians. Audience members at Saturday's TEDx will pass through security checkpoints and be individually searched, and may not yet even know the venue.

Sebastian Lindstrom, TEDxMogadishu communications coordinator, does not hesitate to push the hopeful notion that the country is stabilising after two decades of civil war. "2012 was the year that peace returned to Somalia," he said.

Ilwad Elman, one of the organisers of TEDx Mogadishu. Photograph: Farah Abdi Warsameh/AP

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Voices and Soul 

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by Justice Putnam 
Black Kos Poetry Editor

Poverty in America is nothing new; in fact is has been a component of the whole economic system. My mother was a single mom without a high school diploma, raising four children and before she married our dad, times were fairly lean. But we got by with love and a conscious effort to budget what we had. Compared to the other kids in the neighborhood, our christmas gifts were more than modest; but to us, the were the most important gifts a kid could ever get.

I experienced some devastating poverty in my early adulthood, but those experiences from my childhood seemed to prepare me for the dynamic to survive.

But I was lucky. There was a safety net that would catch me.

If it were to happen again; and I'm afraid it will, that net is not so secure.

Notes on Poverty

Was I so poor 
      in those damned days 
that I went in the dark 
      in torn shoes 
and furtiveness 
      to steal fat ears 
of cattle corn 
      from the good cows 
and pound them 
      like hard maize 
on my worn Aztec 
      stone? I was. 

-- Hayden Carruth

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Welcome to the Black Kos Community Front Porch

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Originally posted to Black Kos community on Tue Sep 03, 2013 at 01:00 PM PDT.

Also republished by Barriers and Bridges.

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