Some of the outstanding citizens in Memphis was the pullman porters. Back in ‘43, one outstanding undertaker in Memphis had an accident with an old white guy. The white guy ran into him in his Cadillac and the cops started whipping this man, saying, "Boy, what are you doing running into this man’s car?" And the white guy said, “It was my fault," but the cops just kept beating him. So I said an outstanding citizen like that in Memphis, what is there for me? From what I'd seen and heard from my grandmother which raised me--incidentally she was eight when the Civil War started—I had a very good moral background. She taught me don't get out there and antagonize white people. You got that fear into you, you travel.
Because of the war. It was either that or get drafted, you know? And back in the Second World War while all these husbands were drafted, husky, healthy Black guys were being rejected. A lot of intelligent, decent Black guys. And when they came home every white wife had a Black boyfriend. Boy, did they learn their lesson. So when Vietnam come, they reversed all that. It was Vietnam or the railroad. Boy, did we learn that lesson.
And then of course, you handle everybody’s linen without gloves at all, you strip the beds, you put the dirty linen in the bin. In the washroom you handle the dirty towels by hand, you mop the floor and mop the smoking room and if you have any sickness on the train you clean it up, you use disinfectant, you debug everything once a month, you get to travel, you get some tips. You always get good fresh money but somehow you always leave broke
I worked the bar, selling liquor and sandwiches and one day I had trouble with three white women, they were pretty high when they came on. And one asked me if they could get any liquor, so I gave them what they wanted but they started getting loud and I told them, You wait until that liquor dies down if you want more but she didn't like it. She called me sunshine: Old Sunshine N----. Some of them get loud and nasty. I guess when you work with them they are nice sometimes, then sometimes they need to let you know that they are white
Now I’m not telling you all of you feel the same way: 90 percent of you do but there is ten percent I know is listening to my story and as long as I respect you you respect me, too, right? Ten percent. The other 90 of you ain’t got nothing but leather for me, boy, I know, I'm not lying
And George, would you fetch me a drink or get the paper, George, would you have the waiter see me, where is my connection to the Parker House, what street is South Station on, are taxis hard to find, what time is Chicago, George, please don’t forget to pick my package up, George is the name of the man who made the Pullman car, not the name I kept inside my pocket to show them I am Albert my last day on the job
Sure, we found our own people riding the train but most time they were just stuffed shirts, you know? They didn't mix too well with others, would sit one place and think you should worship 'em. Which is why I loved that man, first time we ever met. We called him Malcolm X, you know I lost all his letters
We should stick together, they said, because when you don't have a union, they treat the porters any kind of way. And a lot of guys didn't join until it got to be a real closed shop. But then we got stronger, better. And of course if you got into a hot one with the conductor, if he deadhead you for nothing, short you, make you pay 75 cents a night up at Harlem just to sleep the Union helps you out. And we was recognized as real railroad men. It was beautiful. That's how we fitted in. Randolph’s Union let us all be men
You asked what I thought about the unions. Well, this man, he wanted me one time to wait on him upstairs. Of course, he wanted to make a date with me. And I told him, which I told a lie, I says, You bring your wife around, I'll bring my husband, but at that time, I had no husband. These things happened all the time. It wasn’t really a problem as I never was a lady’s lady. But mister, the unions never really wanted me
I saw Greta Garbo in my car
I saw soldiers delousing Germans
I saw that black-haired woman down in Washington, she married the guy who gave the throne up
I was on the dining car when Nixon and Eisenhower was running for president
I shook Ella Fitzgerald’s hand
I saw Bing Crosby Doris Day Betty Grable Tom Mix
I remember Marilyn Monroe on my train and oh my gosh
Roy Rogers Humphry Bogart Gloria Swanson
Only Bing Crosby tipped good
So I say to them, I'm a railroad man, why can't I stay down at this ten million dollar YMCA they built on 44th Street? Well, they said, We ain't never had men like you up here. But I don't give a damn, this is a YMCA put up just for railroad people. I'm as good as an engineer, I'm as good as a brakeman, I'm as good as a conductor, I'm as good as the president even of the railroad. So I picked up the fight, and I won that fight hands downs. Oh, I had to get real radical. And you know from that night on I broke in there, Black railroad workers stay with comfort. They have a library, pool hall, game room, they have a cafeteria, when you open the door, that bed is spotless. I broke the same thing down in New Haven. It wasn't tough because I’d cracked New York. That’s why my wife tells me, Chico, if you had stayed on the railroad they would have killed you
I didn't tell you about our youngest son, he is a handicap child. Thirty-one and he ain't never called me daddy yet. But I love that boy like crazy, boy, I'm telling you I'm crazy about that boy. We moved him out from Brockton in September. You can see the blood on this fist, you can't see blood, but there is blood upon this fist. I had to fight the Ku Klux Klan all over this town. All for the privilege of paying one- hundred and fifty- four thousand dollars for a house for that boy to live in
My daughter is a doctor
My daughter works at the T
My daughter is the head of the Carney Institute
My children go to Northeastern now
My son went to Spellman
My daughter attended Carnegie Mellon
My son went to BU
I sent my daughter to the Ursuline Academy
I kept after my son, and he woke up late, but he is doing pretty good for himself now
My son went to Boston Technical
My son’s a mechanic.
I have one son. He is 41
My oldest girl is a secretary at the John Hancock Building, my other is just a housewife
My oldest son is in the National Guard
My son died
My daughter has two children now
My child’s name is Victory. Named after my father.
Speakers of “You” draw from "Robert C. Hayden: Transcripts of oral interviews with Boston African American Railroad Workers, 1977-1991," at the Joseph P. Healey Digital Collection, University of Massachusetts, Boston.
Albert Floyd Flake, 1989 November 20
William Chandler, 1988-1989
Overton Wesley Crawford, Nov 12, 1989; Albert Floyd Flake