In a living room in Northeast Washington, the green wallpaper has faded but the memories of a courageous chapter in American history haven't. Those times, when she moved in and out of Washington homes bringing the word about the fledgling union of Pullman porters, are alive in the words of 100-year-old Rosina Tucker.
"I was a target," she says, remembering the threatening power of the railroad giant, the Pullman Co. "They knew everything about this house. When we met I had to close up the house shades ." While the men of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters are chiseled rightly into the public memory of the porters' history, the wives of the porters played a vital role on the sidelines. "That responsibility was to collect dues, see that the men got knowledge of the progress. All of this had to be done in secret," says Tucker.
Tucker is the narrator of a new documentary, "Miles of Smiles, Years of Struggle," a lively history of the Brotherhood that will be shown today at the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum, June 1 at the Martin Luther King Library and June 6 at the 15th Street Presbyterian Church.
In the early 1920s Pullman was the largest single private employer of black men, the dispenser of the elegant train service that was synonmous with the company's name. Ashley Totten, a New York porter, made the bold move of organizing a porters' labor union in 1925. For the long, bitter struggle he engaged A. Philip Randolph, a radical magazine editor and social theoretician who became the eminence of the modern civil rights movement. In 1937 the porters and the Pullman Co. signed a contract, the first between a major American corporation and a union of black workers.
Through her robust voice, animated sassiness and fierce love of the subject, Tucker lifts the documentary far above the ordinary collection of personal recollections and facts. And it almost didn't happen. Paul Wagner, the producer, says sheepishly, "When we first started, men in Chicago, men in Oakland told us about Mrs. Tucker. Frankly we didn't come to her right away because we didn't see the connection."
Sitting in her living room, where the embroidered sofa and armchairs and the upright piano witnessed this history, Tucker grandly illustrates the connections. Giving Wagner's lack of historical knowledge a shrug, she says, "Very few men can do much without women." She leans forward because her hearing has started to go, a condition expressed by the widening of her deep brown eyes, and, now understanding the question, she leans back against her pillow and touches her double strand of pearls. "That's me," she answers. "I don't allow anybody to walk over me. I have learned how to fight with words; I don't cuss."
Rosina Tucker was born on Nov. 4, 1881, on Fourth Street NW, in a house long ago swallowed up by development. She attended the old M Street High School. She fell in love in her junior year and left to test her wanderlust by marrying a man who was a minister, poet and journalist. "Living around as I did was school," she says. For a short while the couple lived in Michigan and had one son, who became a physical education teacher at Wilberforce University in Ohio. When her husband died, she returned to Washington, became involved in civic activities and met B.J. Tucker through friends. Married Thanksgiving Eve in 1918, the Tuckers moved into the town house near Gallaudet College where she still lives.
Her husband was working as a carpenter's helper when he opted for the better life on the road. When he heard about the Brotherhood, recalls his wife, he didn't hesitate to join. Yet connections with the union often brought trouble and dismissals. "Organized labor was new to us," explains Tucker. In her work she visited the homes of 300 porters who lived in Washington, discussed the union, left the Brotherhood's literature and, later, collected the dues. "Many of them didn't understand, didn't want to risk losing their jobs. Some stood with the company against the union."
The Tucker household experienced some retaliation. When her husband was removed from his regular run to Montreal, his supervisor told him, " 'Nothing in hell,' " laughs Tucker, "--oh, how I love to say that word,--'would have taken you off that run except your wife's activities.' " She tells the story of confronting the powers-that-be with the expansive relish reserved for proud prize winners. "I told him who I was, I was just about right mad enough then, and the supervisor asked me, 'Why are you taking it up?' 'Why,' I said, 'I am here because you brought me into it. If you don't take care of this matter, I will be back.' "
For 35 years her husband worked as a porter, a job that held considerable esteem in the black community. After the porters unionized, they enjoyed a steady job, regulated hours and, by the standards for blacks of the day, a comfortable wage. They were valued also by black nonprofessionals for their contact with the white decision-makers. The porters entered the cultural archives through the writings of Sinclair Lewis and more recently James Alan McPherson and were brought to film by Paul Robeson in "The Emperor Jones." However, they were still the targets of the racial slurs and attitudes of the day, all answering to the name "George," as they gave 24-hour, smiling service according to a list of 217 rules. "He was the slave, I hate to say it this way, but he was part of the equipment," says Tucker of all the porters.
In her own life she worked briefly as a government messenger but then devoted her entire life to her neighborhood, her church, the 15th Street Presbyterian, teaching piano and, of course, the Brotherhood. In the 1940s and 1950s Tucker traveled to all the railroad centers as the international secretary-treasurer of the union auxiliary. Only once did she fly. "On a trip in the South because Mr. Randolph didn't want me to take a Jim Crow car," recalls Tucker.
The film "Miles of Smiles," says Tucker, gave her the opportunity to say many things "that had never been said before." Besides the secrecy and the women's participation in the organizing effort, Tucker was able to reinforce the porters' emergence in the development of civil rights leaders, pointing particularly to E.D. Nixon of Montgomery, Ala., who called the meeting to organize the Montgomery Bus Boycott that catapulted Martin Luther King Jr. to his first national recognition. At one point in the film, Tucker sings a song she wrote for the porters movement.
The film is a cooperative project of the Columbia Historical Society, the Smithsonian Institution, the D.C. Community Humanities Council and the Brotherhood of Railway and Airline Clerks, the AFL-CIO affiliate that merged with the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in 1978.
As she flips through several scrapbooks, pointing out a flattering picture of her taken almost 50 years ago that the filmmakers didn't use, Tucker recalls her 100th birthday party. A young man asked her how were things in her day, and, laughing, Tucker replied, "This is my day."