Commentary: 'Pullmen Porter Blues' at Arena Stage brings flood of family memories

When I went to see "Pullman Porter Blues" at Arena Stage this month, not only was it an opportunity to see an excellent play, but it was also a chance to delve into my own heritage.

Set in 1937, "Pullman Porter Blues" is the story of three generations of black pullman car porters, the highly trained, uniformed men who took care of every need, around the clock, of first-class, sleeping-car passengers.

In the play, the grandfather, Monroe, appears happy to do the bidding of his white supervisor, but he has some tricks up his sleeve. His son, Sylvester, on the other hand, is an outspoken rebel, working undercover to help form the country's first black union — the International Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. The grandson, Cephas, a pre-med student, wants to give up college to become a porter, over the strong objections of his father.

The play gives a realistic depiction of the grueling and often degrading work required of the pullman porters. Even so, the porters were held in high esteem in the black community. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and civil rights activist Dr. Benjamin E. Mays were once pullman porters.

By the 1920s, there were more than 20,000 black pullman porters working on trains across the country. Because they had to pay for their uniforms and meals, they relied heavily on tips and were therefore careful not to offend white passengers.

"Simple keeps you alive and the less they (white passengers) think you know, the more your tips will grow," the grandfather, played by Broadway veteran Larry Marshall, says in training his grandson. "Count everything … napkins, even grains of salt. … If anything is missing, they take it out of your check."

In talking to my siblings and mom about the play, I learned that I had relatives on both sides of my family who were pullman porters. I remember my mom telling us that as children, she and her siblings would go to the train station in Winnsboro, S.C., to see her cousin, Maceo Craig, who was a pullman car porter.

"We'd walk to the station whenever we knew his train was passing through," said my mom, Neresa Glenn. "We'd tell everybody, 'We're going to see Maceo,' who often brought us gifts. He was the only black (pullman) porter we ever saw on his train. I always remember him talking to us while sitting on the steps used to board the train. The last time I saw him was in 1963 at momma's (Lucy Craig) funeral."

In telling my sister, Teresa, about the play and my talk with mom, she reminded me that on Daddy's side, our cousin, William Boyd, whom everybody called Son, was a pullman car porter as well. She learned of his experiences from his 80-something-year-old daughter, Janie Francis, at a family reunion. Son was a combination of Monroe in the play, who secretly distributed the black Chicago Defender newspaper along the train's line, and his activist son, Sylvester, who wanted a better life for his son.

A lot of my family members, including my father, openly pushed for civil rights during segregation and often got in trouble for those activities. Other relatives were also threatened for less lofty reasons by the Ku Klux Klan and my sister said cousin Son often stepped in to help.

"When our relatives had to be sneaked out of town, cousin Janie said her father would sometimes get them out on the train," Teresa said. "She said her father would even send his identification passes to cousins in other cities to use so they could get on the train undetected, with no questions asked. He was so well known that he didn't need to show anything to board."

We both laughed when she recalled a story cousin Janey told her of a cousin I won't name, who in the 1940s was given Son's ID to come from South Carolina to Baltimore when he was in a bit of trouble. This cousin made a pit stop in Virginia because of a pretty woman. Being the confident black man that he was, he got in trouble there, too and had to be bailed out again.

After hearing these stories, I'm considering going to see "Pullman Porter Blues" again. The blues music, acting, media-infused setting and plot — coupled with the exhibit on the pullman porters outside the theater — are worth it. It's a well-told story that's an important part of America's history, and my family's history as well.

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