On Saturday, May 9, "trainiacs" across America celebrated the 2nd annual National Train Day. I joined them in Philadelphia's 30th Street Station to honor the Pullman porters, the men who worked long hours providing personal service on America's railroads.
In the century spanning 1868-1968, the largely African-American Pullman porters became part of the national consciousness, emblematic of the passenger rail service that linked this country from coast to coast. The work, however, was less glorious in reality than it was in the popular imagination.
Perhaps not as familiar to Americans is the porters' role in the civil rights movement of the mid-20th century. They formed the first black labor union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, in 1925. And, the union's leader, A. Phillip Randolph was an organizing force behind the March on Washington of 1963.
We gathered Saturday to pay tribute to the legacy of these men, forever a part of our railroad lore. It was an honor to meet them, now in their 80s and 90s: William Varnado, Frank Rollins, Belton Calmes, and Percy Lee. I congratulate them for their service and for their part in American history.
The National Train Day festivities around the country commemorated completion of the nation's first trans-continental rail line. On May 10, 1869, a golden spike was driven into a railroad tie in Promontory, Utah, joining the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railways.
The rest, as they say, may be history, but it's important history. The railroad is part of our national story, and it is difficult to imagine a nation as bustling and prosperous as the U.S. without the industry of the many thousands of good people who worked the rails. Whether we're talking about the labor of laying those ties and driving those spikes or about the service provided by the Pullman porters, the conductors, the engineers, or the brakemen, we would be a different nation without them.