Twice a week for more than 20 years, Joseph A. Strowder traveled from his home in Northeast Washington to New York, south to Miami and back again. He was part of a vast, if little recognized, army of workers who kept America's trains rolling in the days when rail was the only the way to go.
As a waiter on the Silver Meteor, the express train that roared through the South, he was on his feet 16 hours a day, serving food in the dining car. When he came back home on the early morning train, he was often bearing sugar cane, exotic fruits and flowers for his wife and two daughters.
In 1966, after struggling for a year to gain a promotion, Strowder became the first and only African American steward, or dining car manager, for the old Seaboard Air Line Railroad. Unnoticed at the time, his quiet fight for equality has finally gained wider notice.
Four years ago, the Voice of America made a short documentary about him that has never been shown in this country. Earlier this year, Strowder was cited in "Rising From the Rails," a book chronicling the importance of railroad workers in the civil rights movement and the rise of the black middle class.
On Aug. 2, the book's author, Larry Tye, gave a reading at the Library of Congress, later shown by C-SPAN, at which Strowder and other aging railroad workers spoke. Four days later, Strowder, who had prostate cancer, died in his bed at the age of 91.
"He was one of the proudest and most dignified men of the dozens of porters and waiters I talked to," Tye said. "He felt incredibly proud to have his story told and finally get some acknowledgment for what he had done."
Joe Strowder was born in Pensacola, Fla., in 1913, less than 50 years after the end of the Civil War. In 1919, a year after he and his family moved to Omaha, he watched a mob of white vigilantes storm the jail to lynch a black man.
"As a youngster," recalled daughter Kathryn Gray, "he rode on a horse-drawn cart and cleaned ashes from people's furnaces."
Seeking a better life, he found work as a waiter in hotels and, later, on trains. He came to Washington in 1939, taking a job with Seaboard. Drafted into the Army at 28, he served four years in a Signal Corps unit during World War II.
After the war, Strowder returned to "running the road" as a dining car waiter in what was still a rigidly segregated society, both on the trains and off. In "Rising From the Rails," he recounts times when he and other black trainmen were arrested or beaten for inadvertently entering white sections of southern towns.
Strowder, who was 6 feet tall, spoke in a deep voice and had a calm, dignified manner, often had to instruct less-experienced white workers who became his supervisors. When he applied to be a steward himself, he was ignored. He couldn't return to waiting tables on trains because if he had, his application to be a steward would be void.
"For the better part of a year," said his wife, Korea Strowder, "they wouldn't give him any work at all. It was at a time we had two girls in college."
He made do with occasional jobs at restaurants and catering firms. Finally, as a last hope, his wife wrote to a postal official, knowing it was illegal for a railroad that carried U.S. mail to discriminate against its employees. Within days, Joe Strowder was back on the rails, in charge of his own dining car.
In the end, the position was more symbolic than rewarding. Without tips, he made less money than he had as a waiter, he still faced discrimination, and passenger trains were vanishing from the landscape. But the larger point had been made: Joe Strowder, a black man, was at long last a supervisor on equal footing with white men.
In 1968, he left the railroad and became a correctional officer at the Lorton Youth Correction Facility, retiring in 1976. For 27 years, he was president of his block association in the District's Trinidad neighborhood, where he and his wife often took in children for months at a time. He once bought every child on the block a hula hoop, and when he was in his eighties, children still came to the door to ask, "Can Mr. Strowder come out to play?"
For their contributions to their neighborhood, the Strowders were twice invited to the White House. Every year, they took a major trip, visiting Brazil, China, Nigeria, Russia and many points in between.
"If my father had been born at any other time," said daughter Jo Strowder, "there is no telling what he could have done to help others. It was obvious that he had the mind. At 91, he still had this great thirst for knowledge."
Since his death more than two months ago, his wife and daughters have heard from people they didn't know, people who were moved in one way or another by Joe Strowder's strong, quiet example.
"Daddy may be gone," said his daughter Jo, "but what he gave to everyone he touched is something they'll carry forever."