Today, the OMA presented at the first meeting for the 2017-2018 academic year of the TRIAD Club at OSU. The presentation, “In Their Own Words: The Oregon African American Railroad Porters Oral History Collection”, gave information about the Oregon African American Railroad Porters Oral History Collection, shared the collection backstory and details of the 2015-2016 grant project to make the collection accessible, and showcased some of the interview content within the oral history interviews.
The presentation was given by Natalia Fernández, the curator of the Oregon Multicultural Archives and OSU Queer Archives, and associate professor at Oregon State University. Below are the presentation slides and notes:
As the curator of the Oregon Multicultural Archives and OSU Queer Archives, I collaborate with LGBTQIA and communities of color to empower them to preserve, share, and celebrate their stories. My work includes collection development, instruction, exhibit curation, and public programming.
This collection is made up of 29 individual, multi-part, and group oral history interviews between film maker Michael Grice and African American railroad porters employed in the Portland area. Grice is an educator, a co-founder of the World Arts Foundation, Inc. and an advocate for the preservation of African American culture. These recordings form much of the background research used for Grice’s 1985 film, “Black Families and the Railroad in Oregon and the Northwest.”
Although the African American community in Oregon is relatively small (about 2% based on the 2010 Census), their social and economic impact on the state has been substantial and this collection will add to the community’s history. By preserving these oral history interviews and making them accessible online, the stories of these individuals can be used by researchers, students, teachers, and the general public. The information gained through the interviews can be used to deepen the level of understanding of how African Americans played a significant role in the social and economic changes to the Portland area and the state during the 20th century.
In 2015, the OMA received a grant from the Oregon Cultural Trust to digitize, transcribe, and make accessible the collection’s oral history interviews. The website includes brief interviewee biographies and interview summaries, access to the interview audio files, and transcripts of all the interviews.
In January 2015 Michael “Chappie” Grice and his colleague, historian, and friend Bob Zybach, reached out to us regarding a collection of reel-to-reel tapes of oral history interviews conducted mostly in the 1980s regarding the experiences of African-American Railroad Porters in Oregon. The Oregon Multicultural Archives was a great match as the repository – the mission of the OMA is to assist in preserving the histories and sharing the stories that document Oregon’s African American, Asian American, Latino/a, and Native American communities. We do not have the in-house capacity to digitize reels – we needed a grant to digitize and transcribe the interviews.
The OSU Special Collections and Archives Research Center was awarded a $5000 grant from the Oregon Cultural Trust for our “Oregon Black Railroad Porters Oral History Preservation Project.” The funds were used to transfer twenty-nine oral history interviews from their current open reel audio format to digital form and to have the interviews professionally transcribed. The stories told in the interviews are showcased through a website featuring the oral histories along with contextual information about Oregon’s black railroad porter community. The collection was further highlighted through two open to the public community events: a book talk with Max Geier and a presentation by Michael Grice.
This project preserves oral histories that recount the work of Portland’s African American railroad porters in the early and mid-20 century, at a time when job opportunities for African American males were largely limited to service related jobs. The interviews feature the experiences of Oregonians and in addition to expanding the state’s historical record, the interviews will also add valuable information to the history of African Americans in the Pacific Northwest, as well as the historical experiences of black railroad porters across the nation.
To highlight the significance of these interview subjects, the following is a brief overview of the work of a selection of interviewees:
- Otto Rutherford was involved in the Portland chapter of the NAACP and played an important role in the successful passage of the Public Accommodations Bill, also known as the Oregon Civil Rights Bill, in the state legislature in 1953.
- E. Shelton Hill arrived in Portland in 1941 as a railroad employee, served as president of the Urban League of Portland from 1959 to 1973, and successfully advocated for the rights of Oregon’s African Americans.
- James Brooks who served as director of the Urban League of Portland from 1974-1978, after heading several of the League’s programs.
Extra information: “Employment hierarchy and description of duties” i.e. cooks, waiters, porters, etc. vs. the jobs not available to black men such as engineers, conductors, brakemen, bartenders and “Variety of Perspectives” i.e. fond memories vs. very negative experiences working for the railroad.
Sample Experience: Vernon Gaskin
Vernon Gaskin was born in 1908 and raised in Cheyenne, Wyoming. His parents were pioneers in the state, being the only black family in the area for many years. He recalls moving to Portland in 1927 and discusses the racial segregation encountered there. He first visited Portland in 1925 after joining the Union Pacific. He went on a trip around the world as a waiter in 1926, then continued with the railroad. He discusses meeting his wife in church and his habit of going to the closest church in every town he stayed in on the railroad. Gaskin switched to the Southern Pacific in 1933. He describes the many unexpected duties of dining car workers, such as nursing sick passengers and dealing with emergencies, and the long hours and working conditions. Gaskin also talks about segregation on the train, both in physical spaces and in the types of jobs and wages available to black workers.
The transcript of the clip used is at the end of this blog post.
Sample Experience: Otto Rutherford
Otto Rutherford was born in February of 1911. His parents had come to Portland in 1897, his father and uncle coming to Portland as hotel barbers. Rutherford began working for the Union Pacific in 1934 as a summer job between school sessions. He describes the tall and short crews and uniforms on the railroad and relays an incident where a white woman temporarily lost her diamond ring and investigators searched the crew, but not the passengers. He noted that the crew was always seen as guilty, and defending yourself could get you fired. Rutherford was a member of a union of cooks and waiters that met secretly in Holiday’s Barbershop in Portland. He discusses the values of organizing and the fear of being fired for union activities. Rutherford also discusses work hours and income and describes several unpleasant incidents on the railroad, as well as the family-like bond among co-workers. Also in this recording he describes growing up in Portland when there were very few black residents.
The transcript of the clip used is at the end of this blog post.
Public Programming – Event 1 of 2
In February 2016, the OMA and the OSU Press hosted a book reading and talk by author Max G. Geier about his book The Color of Night: Race, Railroaders, and Murder in the Wartime West. The book revolves around the 1943 trial of Robert E. Lee Folkes, a young black man and train cook who Geier argues was wrongly accused and convicted of the murder of Martha James, a young white woman, while both were aboard a train traveling near the Willamette Valley town of Albany, Oregon. Folkes’ trial, controversial conviction, and resulting execution provokes thought about race, class, and privilege in Oregon (more about the book later in the presentation). And I presented about the Oregon African American railroad porter oral history interviews collection grant project details.
Public Programming – Event 2 of 2
“Hear the Stories: Oregon African American Railroad Porters Oral History Collection”, October 12, 2016. The second event featured Michael Grice sharing the stories of Oregon’s African American railroad porters, including his personal experiences. We had the collection materials available to view, along with i-pads that enabled event attendees to peruse the collection website. Notably, this event was recorded and the presentation is available online.
Earlier mention of the book The Color of Night ~ interesting side story…As part of my work is to acquire relevant collections for the archives, I spoke with Professor Geier to see if he would be interested in donating his collection of research files used for writing The Color of Night. He agreed, and after being arranged and described, the collection is now available for researchers. The research files include Geier’s research on the history of African Americans in Oregon and California, as well as the history of the Pullman Company; legal documents and other materials related to the Robert E. Lee Folkes case; and The Color of Night manuscript drafts and publication related documents. It acts as complimentary collection to the railroad porters oral history collection.
*** Transcripts of Interview Clips ***
VG: Why, I left the Union Pacific and signed in with the Southern Pacific.
MG: I see.
VG: And that’s — put in the rest of our railroading days there with the Southern Pacific.
MG: In the dining car?
VG: In the dining car, mhmm.
MG: You recall any interesting incidents in working in the dining car?
VG: Oh yes, yeah. Many of them.
MG: What comes to mind?
VG: Well, only thing about the dining car is that men in the Pullman cars would tell you it’s the heart of the train. Don’t care what happens on that train, they going to run right to the dining car with that problem. Yeah, that’s right. A woman’s raped, if she’s robbed, kid gets sick, a woman’s going to have a child, they run right to the dining car. I have assisted in bringing two children into the world.
MG: On a train.
VG: On the train, mhmm. Back in the [00:13:56 unintelligible]. That’s right, mhmm.
MG: It is like a hotel on wheels maybe, so to speak.
VG: Really, mhmm. And that same way with theâ€”well, I’ll let the old men know, but the same way with the Pullman cars. You know, if you became ill, even though you had a coach seat they’d haul you back to the Pullman car because that’s where the bed was, see. Oh yeah, mhmm. And we were everything on the train, yeah. You’re a waiter, you’re a porter, everything. You’re a nurse. And it was rewarding, the job. Hard work.
MG: What would you say the hardest thing about it was?
VG: The hours.
MG: The hours. Long hours?
VG: Long hours. See, a normal day for a waiter was sixteen hours, and you were going that sixteen hours. Sometimes you’d have to eat your meals standing up, see. And even at that, our day was shorter than the Pullman porters, believe it or not. So I’ll letâ€”I won’t go into their department. I’ll stay away from that, but it’s hard after being connected so closely with the Pullman service and the dining cars are all together on the train, and it’s hard to separate, you know —
MG: Sure, it was all one team, more or less.
VG: Friendship. Yeah, that’s it, all on one team, yes. And well, it’s we came a long way as black workers. I might add that when I hired out in 1925, the salary was fifteen dollars a month. That was your monthly wage. And you didn’t work on an hourly basis; you worked on a daily basis. We had no unions; unions were unheard of in those days.
VG: So you just had to grin and bear it, whatever they requested. Now I — well I’ll stay, let’s stay in the Dining Car Department.
VG: I worked in about every position; a cook, waiter, and the last seven years that I was on the road I was finally elevated to steward, I’m a steward. Of course that took place after the equal opportunity law came effective. They had to promote us. Those of us that worked in —
MG: Do you remember what year that was? Was that in the sixties?
VG: Oh yeah, let’s see, you know, because I retired in ’73. That’s been nineteen what, ’66?
MG: Well, it was ’64 the Civil Rights Act.
VG: Yeah, the law was at about that time but I didn’t get my promotion until about ’66, along in there.
MG: Yeah, because I remember I worked on the road ’66, ’67, ’68, and they didn’t — I never had seen a black steward.
VG: They were few and far between.
MG: Yeah, there were some, but…
VG: Mhmm. And so that was one of the highlights of my railroading career is to make that promotion to become a steward in charge of the dining car.
OR: I’ll tell you one thing that stands out so vividly in my mind, and I curse the Union Pacific till the day I die: one day between Pocatello and Green River, a woman, needless to say she was white, went to the lavatory early in the morning to clean up, and she swore she had left a diamond ring on the edge of the basin.
MG: The night before?
OR: Early in the morning. So when we got to Green River the special agents got on and searched the crew. Never a passenger. I knew, John Miner [spelling?] knew, and my workers, the fellas who worked with me, knew we didn’t see the woman’s ring. And so at lunch time the woman got ready to get ready for lunch, she looked in her purse and doggone it, there was her ring. I still resent it, that we as employees never had a word to say. We were always guilty, always guilty. And I’ll curse the Union Pacific and everybody else till the day I die.
MG: They didn’t give you an opportunity —
OR: But in those days, you see, we didn’t have this civil rights sort of thing, so all you had to lean on was to open your mouth and then get fired. So I — the Union Specific was great for that. They’ll bring on a special agent and search the crew; never search the passenger.
MG: They wanted to absolve the railroad of any responsibility.