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Oregon State University
Special Collections and Archives
Research Center

African American Railroad Porters Oral History Collection, 1983-1992View associated digital content.

The African American Railroad Porters Oral History Collection is primarily made up of thirty reel-to-reel sound recordings containing interviews between filmmaker Michael Grice and African-American railroad porters employed in the Portland area. The interviews cover a variety of topics, including the day-to-day work of porters, labor unions, and racism in the Portland area. These recordings formed much of the background research used for Grice's 1985 film, "Black Families and the Railroad in Oregon and the Northwest." Copies of the film are included in the collection and is available online.

A website for the oral history interviews including digitized audio along with interview transcriptions can be found at:

ID: OH 029
Extent: 0.4 cubic feet
More Extent Information
Scope and Content Notes
Biographical / Historical Notes
Statement on Access: Collection is open for research.
Statement on Description:

We acknowledge that materials in SCARC collections and the language that describes them may be harmful.  We are actively working to address our descriptive practices; for more information please see our SCARC Anti-Racist Actions Statement online.

Please be aware that some of the contents in the African American Railroad Porters Oral History Collection may be disturbing or activating. In several instances, interviewees relay stories that recount a culture of racism and the use of racist, derogatory language toward African Americans, including the N word. Connected to this are stories of trauma, both personal and community-wide.

[Date of acknowledgement: May 2023]

Preferred Citation: African American Railroad Porters Oral History Collection (OH 29), Oregon State University Special Collections and Archives Research Center, Corvallis, Oregon.
Acquisition Note: Michael Grice donated the collection to the Special Collections & Archives Research Center in 2015.
Acquired: 2015.
Languages of Materials

Container List

Series 1: Interviews, 1983-1992 Add to Shelf
Interviews in this series have been digitized and made available online. Specific interview sessions are linked below.
Extent: 30 reels
Item 1.1: Lawrence Alberti, circa 1980s Add to Shelf
Lawrence Alberti worked as a Red Cap for the railroad. He started in 1936 and worked until threat of the draft in the forties caused him to volunteer for the armed services. He discusses life as a supply sergeant in Washington, Louisiana, New York and Europe. Alberti returned to civilian life in 1946 and went back to work as a Red Cap. He describes the duties and hours of Red Caps and the practice of workers stealing baggage tags to avoid paying baggage charges. Alberti eventually quit the railroad and went into the postal service instead.
Extent: 0:16:23
Item 1.2: Daniel Allen, June 16, 1983 Add to Shelf
Daniel Allen was born in Muldoon, Texas in 1899. His railroad experience began in 1915 as a “sniper” caring for a stretch of railroad track in one area. The crew was racially mixed. Allen recalls working as cotton harvesters with his family until they ran out of money in Lubbock, Texas. He then worked as a cement worker for a contractor and went on strike with six or seven other workers to demand a raise. Soon after he got a job as a chair car porter on the Santa Fe railroad but was fired when the contractor he had worked took revenge by calling the railroad about him. Allen then worked at the Giles Lake shipyard until he was hired by the Union Pacific in 1945. The pay was so low that his sons still working at the shipyard helped to pay his bills. He retired in 1967. Allen also describes racism in Portland Oregon and the brotherhood he felt with his railroad co-workers.
Extent: 0:23:46
Item 1.3: James Brooks, May 8, 1983 Add to Shelf
James Brooks was originally born James Thompson in Mississippi. He moved to Portland in 1929 where his uncle, Mr. Green, was a Pullman porter. Brooks discusses the poverty at the time which made racial differences less apparent, as many white residents in the area had no jobs at all. Brooks talks about the white and black communities in Portland co-existing because the black community was not an economic or social threat to the white community. At the time, Brooks says the black population in the entire state of Oregon was only between one or two thousand persons, mostly concentrated in Portland. Brooks talks about his work as a chair car porter and the hierarchy of positions on the train, with waiters at the top and porters at the bottom. Brooks compares this hierarchy to the hierarchy of slavery where enslaved persons who worked in the home were viewed as above others, and discusses how this hierarchy continued into post-emancipation life. Brooks also explains why porters suffered more abuse from passengers than waiters did, and the lack of recourse for railroad workers. Brooks describes an underground system of mentors and family-like bonds among railroad workers, even with the hierarchy.
Extent: 0:20:29
Item 1.4: Eddie Butler, Lonnie Wilson, and Others, circa 1980s Add to Shelf
In this recording several retired railroad workers recall their experiences. Many relate stories about working on special trains, which were lucrative in terms of tips, and not easy to get chosen to serve on. One speaker describes being treated well by passengers on a train full of important Mississippians, one of which stood up for the workers when a white steward tried to refuse them time to eat. Eddie Butler describes black employees being reprimanded for taking offense at racial slurs, and his philosophy of diligently doing his work so he could more safely stand up for himself when being mistreated on the job. Lonnie Wilson relays his experience serving on a special train for the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the Harriman special train. Wilson also discusses being on a train trapped in snow for four days and the measures taken to care for the passengers, as well as his experiences as a stationary pantry man.
Extent: 0:24:18
Item 1.5: George Canada, August 19, 1983 Add to Shelf
George Canada worked on the railroad for 41 years. In this brief interview he describes the differences between waiters, cooks, and porters and says the work was enjoyable and he was treated fairly.
Extent: 0:04:12
Item 1.6: Vernon Gaskin, June 16, 1983 Add to Shelf
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.
Extent: 0:24:41
Item 1.7: Si Green, August 13, 1983 Add to Shelf
Si Greene was born in Arkansas in the late 1910s and moved to Portland at eight years old. He describes growing up in Portland and organizing the Rockets basketball team with other kids from his church after a helpful reverend demanded the Y allow black children to use their facilities. Greene also relates incidences of confrontation and conflict between himself and co-workers and higher-ups at the railroad.
Extent: 0:24:33
Item 1.8: Si Green, August 13, 1983 Add to Shelf
Si Greene discusses working as a Red Cap from March of 1940 to July 8th, 1970, when he retired and began working for Crown Zellerbach. Greene describes discrimination in which railroad jobs were closed for black employees, such as engineers and brakemen. There is also discussion about the issue of “service-oriented” jobs being less open to black persons as blacks in the sixties began to avoid such jobs and whites took the jobs as the pay was increased. Greene also talks on the benefits of the railroad unions that he and his father were members of. His father was a member of the Pullman porters union from about 1926. Greene also lists some of his hobbies.
Extent: 0:24:48
Item 1.9: Si Green, August 13, 1983 Add to Shelf
In this recording Si Greene gives his opinion on the changes in the “job concept” of the railroad, with higher pay and more white persons accepting menial jobs. He discusses his feelings that the youth of the day do not have the same work ethic, and feels they are unwilling to learn. Greene also reflects on the cultural habit of black Americans to go by descriptive nicknames such as “Big Chappy” and “Old Good’n” rather than their names. He also describes his philosophies on dealing with money and conflicts, based on things his mentors taught him. Greene mentions there was a high percentage of both non-commission and commissioned officers coming out of the armed services among Red Caps.
Extent: 0:24:48
Item 1.10: Augustus Hawkins, July 1, 1992 Add to Shelf
Congressman Augustus Hawkins was born on August 31st, 1907 in Shreveport, Louisiana. He served in Congress and the California State Assembly for 56 years; 28 years in each. Hawkins gives some background information on his family and recalls moving to Los Angeles as a young teenager and relates the issues he faced due to having a white complexion in a black setting during times of segregation. He recalls important people visiting and staying at the family home when he was a growing up, such as Booker T. Washington. Hawkins describes his mother’s influence on his values and how his father instilled in him that he would have to be successful in life by his own efforts. He also recalls religious family life on Sundays and the Depression’s effect on the family and on his choice to attend University of California, Los Angeles instead of University of California at Berkeley, and to earn a degree in economics instead of engineering.
Extent: 0:24:31
Item 1.11: Augustus Hawkins, July 1, 1992 Add to Shelf
In this second recording of Augustus Hawkins, Hawkins talks about banding together with six or eight others at UCLA after recognizing a need for leadership in dealing with the problem of unequal opportunities in the job market. Civic jobs controlled by government officials were not available to black persons at the time. The city administration in Los Angeles was also corrupt. The group decided the best thing to do was choose one of them to run for office. Hawkins was chosen in the group by process of elimination. Hawkins discusses loyalty of black Americans to the Republican Party persisting into the mid-1930s, at which time many began to favor Franklin Delano Roosevelt. With the help of the UCLA group, Hawkins ran for California State Assembly and won by about 1500 votes. He describes the campaign and their focus on health, housing and jobs, outlining legislation he sponsored in the California legislature, such as the Fair Employment Act and opening civic jobs to minorities and women. He also fought for recognition and spots in the leadership in the labor movement.
Extent: 0:24:27
Item 1.12: Augustus Hawkins, July 1, 1992 Add to Shelf
In this third recording of Augustus Hawkins he talks about his allies in the California State Assembly, including railroad employees such as A. Philip Randolph. Hawkins also discusses issues such as housing and the successes and failures of his California State Legislature work. Hawkins then relates some key events and legislation from his time in the U.S. House of Representatives. He describes strong support from the Kennedy administration and discusses Employment and training legislation, the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the Equal Employment Opportunity Act, known as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the Area Redevelopment Act, the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act, the Job Training Partnership Act, federal aid for education, assistance for non-English speaking groups and people with disabilities, and development of childcare centers throughout the country. Hawkins expresses his views about the issues still needing attention, such as poverty, unequal educational opportunities and more. He gives advice for young people about education and opportunities.
Extent: 0:24:16
Item 1.13: E. Shelton Hill, July 7, 1983 Add to Shelf
E. Shelton Hill was born in Indian Territory in what is now Oklahoma, where his father was working as an interpreter. During college in Kansas, Hill held summer jobs as a waiter in local hotels. Hill was recruited by a friend to join the railroad. He tells the story of his recruitment and working for the railroad every summer during college. Hill recalls the Golden West Hotel in Portland, the second largest black hotel in the country. He also discusses the Oregon constitution’s exclusion laws which prevented black persons from living in the state if they were unemployed and kept the black population low for many years even when the railroad began employing black persons. Hill describes the positions available to black workers on the railroad and the hierarchy among those positions, as well as the jobs that were unobtainable, regardless of skill level. Hill then describes social life in the black community of Portland, including women’s groups.
Extent: 0:22:46
Item 1.14: E. Shelton Hill, July 7, 1983 Add to Shelf
In this second recording of E. Shelton Hill, Hill talks about the variation in working conditions on the trains, especially sleeping accommodations. He discusses unions and how many of the members were summer workers who had less to fear if they were fired in retaliation for joining. Hill recalls his experiences in the Air Force, which he volunteered for due to his draft status. Hill also talks about his schooling and his involvement as a board member on the Urban League of Portland. Hill talks about some of the issues the black population in Portland faced in the 1940s, such as public accommodations, housing and employment.
Extent: 0:24:21
Item 1.15: Cliff Jackson, August 23, 1983 Add to Shelf
Cliff Jackson was born in Marshall, Missouri in 1900. He spent 38 years working for the railroad. When he first joined he thought he was going to Portland Maine but later was glad to be in Oregon instead. Jackson worked as a dining car waiter before becoming a Red Cap. He describes the duties of each. He recalls being a waiter on a special train with President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Jackson recalls the Local 465 Dining Car Waiters union and going to meetings despite the risk of getting fired. He describes the social and entertainment life during time spent at various different stops along railroad trips. Jackson also recalls the advent of baggage carts for passenger use as the end of the Red Cap career.
Extent: 0:20:08
Item 1.16: Cliff Jackson, August 23, 1983 Add to Shelf
In this second recording of Cliff Jackson, he briefly talks about his parents and siblings, then talks about the differences between train service when he was an employee and modern trains, and asserts that the service and atmosphere have declined over the years. Jackson describes working for the Democratic Party in Kansas City where he had to pay black persons to get them to vote in the 1920s. He recalls waiting tables at a place President Harry S. Truman and his wife went to and visiting with Bess Truman years later. Jackson gives advice to young people in light of the changes in service industry occupations. He also compares the red light district of Portland in the past to present and discusses the lack of sexual health knowledge when he was young. Jackson then reminisces of his years working in the hospital’s cancer ward.
Extent: 0:17:23
Item 1.17: Willie Jenkins, August 24, 1983 Add to Shelf
Willie Jenkins first started working for the railroad in 1939 as a summer job in Mississippi. He had two years of college. He came to Portland in 1942 and worked as a waiter on the train until retiring in 1979. Jenkins talks about improvements made by the union, but also corruption of some union officers who were stealing union the dues they collected. He also describes sleeping conditions in the dining car and recalls the story of meeting his wife on the train when she was a passenger. Jenkins recounts some incidences when people were hit and killed by trains he was working on, and the experience of being trapped on a train in a flood. Jenkins also talks about service related jobs being taken over by white employees and his views that black youths of the day are unwilling to learn their jobs and don’t show interest in their work. He advises young people to get a good education and to consider working in the culinary business.
Extent: 0:17:36
Item 1.18: Hazel Murray, June 23, 1983 Add to Shelf
Hazel Murray was born into a sharecropper family in North Carolina on August 20th, 1913. Though he couldn’t attend school past second grade, he learned the fundamentals of electrician work and worked as a contractor in the south before being drafted into the Army in 1943. Stationed in Vancouver, Hazel visited Portland Oregon and later settled there after meeting his wife in the area. He discusses “white trade only” signs in Vancouver that angered the non-white solders, who “wrecked” downtown Vancouver on a Saturday night. In 1945 Hazel left the army and worked at in the shipyards for six months before joining the Union Pacific Railroad. Hazel describes the “miserable” working conditions as a railroad fourth cook. He retired after thirty years in 1975.
Extent: 0:24:29
Item 1.19: Hazel Murray, Cleophas Smith, and Others, circa 1980s Add to Shelf
In this short collection of excerpts, various speakers recount their experiences. Hazel Murray tells the story of being shipped to Vancouver by the Army with 500 black troops and the racism encountered both on the train and upon arrival in the city of Vancouver. Other topics include changes in racism in Portland, Oregon and Cleophas Smith’s recollections of growing up during the Depression.
Extent: 0:05:37
Item 1.20: Railroad Senior Citizens Association Meeting, April 12, 1984 Add to Shelf
In this recording several retired railroad workers give their reactions of Michael Grice’s film and relate some of their experiences as railroad workers. A former Pullman porter discusses working with the Union Pacific in the early forties and changes in certain rules and the improvement in salaries after the formation of the Brotherhood of the Sleeping Car Porters. James Sullivan discusses secretly transporting union literature before unions were allowed, and a Red Cap, a dining car worker, a pantry man and a cook share experiences of working and living conditions on the railroad, including incidents or racism and segregation.
Extent: 0:24:11
Item 1.21: Railroad Senior Citizens Association Meeting, April 12, 1984 Add to Shelf
In this recording, retired railroad workers continue discussing conditions on the railroad. A cook describes working on train cars infested with chinches (bedbugs). There is some discussion about white men with no bartending experience being hired as bartenders while there were black workers who knew the job but wouldn’t be given the title or pay for it. There is also mention of stewardesses who were hired to care for passengers’ babies onboard, but were engaging in prostitution instead.
Extent: 0:04:38
Item 1.22: Willie Rice, September 1, 1985 Add to Shelf
Willie Rice was born in Starkville, Mississippi on December the 15th, 1921. He began working for the railroad in 1944 as a waiter. He describes having to put up with racial slurs and the threat of being fired unfairly and without recourse. He was fired from the Great Northern Railroad for refusing to buy a bottle of liquor for a white steward. Rice describes trying to work as a welder prior to the railroad and having no success due to racism. One plant hired him but demoted him to janitor, and at another plant the white workers did not want to work with him, so he had to quit join the railroad. Rice explains the amount of money made was dependent on tips, so suffering racial slurs calmly was important. He details the duties of a waiter and challenges on the job. Rice asserts that the 1971 Amtrak merger made conditions worse for employees and also notes that black employment on the trains went from 99% to less than 50% after the merger.
Extent: 0:24:35
Item 1.23: Willie Rice, September 1, 1985 Add to Shelf
In this second recording of Willie Rice he describes his survival strategy on the job of not getting too close to co-workers who he felt would take advantage of him. He also discusses his daughter’s education at the all-black Howard University and his reasons for choosing an all-black school. He gives advice to young black men and women in regards to their black identity, education and efforts in life. Rice reflects on the abuse he put up with to stay with the railroad and the pros and cons of the job. Rice also discusses a class action lawsuit against the Burlington Northern Railroad, their failure to follow through on their promises, and his unsuccessful attempts to get training and settlement money that the lawsuit was designed to achieve.
Extent: 0:16:21
Item 1.24: Alfred Richerdson, circa 1980s Add to Shelf
Alfred Richerdson was born in Kansas City, Missouri on September 28th, 1916 and moved to Philadelphia at three months old. He talks about his mother working in the Pennsylvania school system at that time. In 1941 Richerdson went to work for the Union Pacific as a waiter. He gives his first impressions of Portland, that the black population was so small that some people had never seen a black person. He describes the racism encountered in Portland and the daily life and hours of a railroad waiter. Richerdson recalls when one of the states declared it unsanitary for waiters to sleep in the dining car, and after much legislation railroads had to provide a dormitory. The last month he worked for the railroad the rules changed to allow black persons to apply for the position of steward. Richerdson also mentions the Railroad Retirement Act and a Streamliner called the City of Portland that hired only light-skinned black employees.
Extent: 0:16:23
Item 1.25: Otto Rutherford, August 12, 1983 Add to Shelf
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.
Extent: 0:23:56
Item 1.26: Cleophas Smith, June 23, 1983 Add to Shelf
Cleophas Smith was born in Mississippi on December 1st, 1916. He grew up in Chicago and began to work for the Union Pacific Railroad as a waiter in 1942. He discusses growing up during the Depression and the sudden effects on his family’s lifestyle, the contrast of racism in Chicago versus Portland Oregon, voluntarily joining a railroad union, becoming familiar with working for tips, being trained on the job by fellow co-workers, the duties of the job, the uniform, and the hierarchy among railroad waiters, which was based on age, experience and seniority. Smith also recounts an incident where he and his railroad crew banded together to defend a fellow crewmember who was being kicked off the train by a steward.
Extent: 0:24:05
Item 1.27: Cleophas Smith, Hazel Murray, Lawrence Alberti, and Jimmy Sullivan, circa 1980s Add to Shelf
In this recording Cleophas Smith, Hazel Murray, Lawrence Alberti and Jimmy Sullivan discuss discrimination in the American armed forces, such as being unable to get treated in Federal hospitals as black soldiers. They also have a lively discussion about politics, including President Ronald Reagan, low voter turn-out of Democrats, and the views of white voters. [Note: the interviewees are not specifically identified within the interview]
Extent: 0:08:14
Item 1.28: Jimmy Sullivan, June 23, 1983 Add to Shelf
Jimmy Sullivan was born in San Antonio, Texas on April 24th, 1906. He served in US Army in chemical warfare from 1942 to 1945. As a young man, Sullivan worked a variety of service related jobs in Texas until following his brother to Portland in 1929. He lists the few jobs that were open to black men and women at the time. He began working as a dining car waiter in 1949 and retired in 1969. He details his experience of being away from home for work, balanced with the benefit of many days off to spend with family. He was a member of a secret Railroad union before the Local 465 dining car union was formed openly, which he joined. Sullivan defines the various issues dining car workers faced on the job. He also discusses customer loyalty and working on specialty trains and streamliners.
Extent: 0:24:32
Item 1.29: Lonnie Wilson, circa 1980s Add to Shelf
Lonnie Wilson was born in Paris, Texas on October the 23rd, 1906. He reflects on memories and the character of “Old Good’n,” Michael Grice’s grandfather who worked on the railroad as well. Wilson’s parents were railroad people; his mother was a matron at the Santa Fe Frisco station in Paris, Texas and his father was a porter starting in 1917 on the Frisco line. Wilson describes working for a private family, the Scott family, from 1925 until 1941 when he left for the railroad. Wilson also recalls working as field executive for Boy Scouts and serving in the US infantry before coming back to the railroad in Portland in 1945. There he started out operating the jitney, selling sandwiches, coffee, milk, fruit and candy in coach, and then worked on the dining car.
Extent: 0:24:34
Item 1.30: Woodrow E. Wilson, August 12, 1983 Add to Shelf
Woodrow E. Wilson was born in Dallas, Texas on January 13th in 1924. His mother placed him and his siblings in an all-black orphanage home in Gilmer, Texas where he stayed until he was fourteen. At seventeen he moved in with his half-brother’s family in Portland Oregon. He joined the Navy in 1942 and joined the Union Pacific Railroad in Portland when he returned to civilian life in 1946. Wilson describes working first as a fourth cook, then third cook, and finally second cook, and describes the duties of each level. An unknown speaker in the recording tells stories about waiters making fun of him as a dishwasher on the train. Wilson talks about working at a hospital for four years and about working on special trains and his involvement with the association of chefs in Portland. He relays passenger feedback about the food served on the train. Wilson also discusses the pros and cons of railroad work and recalls getting trapped on a train in a 1948 snowstorm.
Extent: 0:19:23
Series 2: "Black Families and the Railroad in Oregon and the Northwest" documentary, 1985 Add to Shelf
Written, directed and produced by Michael Grice and hosted by Tim Reid, this film makes use of many of the oral history interviews described in Series 1 to tell the story of African American railroad porters in the Pacific Northwest. The VHS tape held in this collection has been digitized and made available online.
Extent: 1 VHS tape, 1 DVD