For Garrard Wilson “Babe” Smock Jr., this almost shining moment was just like a bump along the rails, or the brief curse of heavy weather: You hold tight and ride with the sway. It will be over soon enough and you’re on your way, on to the next curve, the coming horizon.
This was supposed to be his moment. But when all was said and done, it didn’t quite go off as planned. He wasn’t really disappointed, though. “It didn’t surprise me,” he said.
In a lilting voice as elegant and burnished as our romanticized memories of first-class train travel, Smock recalls his 30-plus years as a Pullman porter and tells you that he saw “the good, the bad, and the ugly.”
Still, taking in the crowds that descended on Railfair ’99 here late last month, it was difficult to believe that trains and train travel ever faded from favor. Thousands converged on the Old Sacramento riverbank area to wander about what has become one of the largest railroading events in the country, if not the world.
Amid the gleaming, four-story high locomotives and the dining cars outfitted to the last egg cup, Smock, 81, waited for the festivities to begin. Having traveled 300-some miles from his home in Los Angeles, he stood proudly in front of a Canadian sleeping car built to Pullman specifications.
For 30-plus years, he’d fluffed pillows on a car like this, fetched extra blankets, miraculously divined more space where no one else could find another inch.
“I had them die on me, I had them born on me,” he confided in a quiet moment. “I’d run to tell the Pullman conductor, ‘Hey, we have a new passenger about to come aboard!’ ”
He did it sometimes without a nod, let alone a thank-you. For Smock and hundreds of African American men who crisscrossed the country on the nation’s hot network of humming rail, it was life as a ghost, as an invisible entity.
They were “seen” only in their absence--or worse, when a mistake was made, a duty overlooked. Because they remembered things, these men were forgotten.
The value and import of these lounge, sleeping and dining car attendants often has fallen outside of history’s margins, or are mentioned in passing merely as “color” in the more windy recollections of the life on the rails.
At Railfair, although he and the car had been tucked into a far corner of the California State Railroad Museum, Smock finally was to be honored for his service. This small salute was an attempt by museum docent Gracie Murphy to correct decades of deletions or oversights.
But the commemoration somehow didn’t make it on Railfair’s printed roster of daily events, and assembled in front of the sleeping car to honor Smock, there were only about a dozen people.
He nonetheless stood dutifully once again, answering questions about the car’s particulars: dimensions, capacity, sleeping configurations, a porter’s daily duties. Then came a series of speeches from various officials from Amtrak and the A. Philip Randolph Institute, a longtime labor and civil rights champion of railroad men. There was a quick reading of a proclamation from the office of California Sen. Teresa P. Hughes (D--Inglewood) honoring the contributions of the African American railman. Finally, it was Smock’s turn.
In his moment in the spotlight, he said but a few words--about his past, about his future. “As I’ve said, I’ve seen the good, the bad and the ugly. The people of nobility, they’re easy to spot. They will always call you Mister.”
Providing Jobs and Controversy
There’s an old, say-no-more aphorism, an adage traded among African American railroaders--"Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves and George Pullman hired ‘em.” It’s spoken without anger or remorse, peppered only with a bit of irony.
George M. Pullman, a farm boy with a few woodworking skills, got his first taste of the limitations of overnight passenger train travel--hard bunks, no sheets, pillows or blankets--as a young traveling contractor, and by 1881, he had built not only a profitable empire but also a dubious reputation.
“For all the accolades and nostalgia that have surrounded George Pullman and the Pullman Co. over the years,” writes David D. Perata in “Those Pullman Blues: An Oral History of the African American Railroad Attendant” (Madison Books, 1999), “it must be recognized for what it really was: a finely tuned, big-money operation. . . . [He] paid his employees poor wages while controlling their income, rent, commercial trade and social lives.”
“Travel and Sleep in Safety and Comfort” was the Pullman motto, but never, in the early years, did his employees feel even a remote sense of security on the job. But there was little room to wander. Employment prospects were largely limited if not nonexistent for black men in post-slavery America. Those who hopped aboard Pullman cars figured out how to make the best of the traveling life--not only satiating a traveling jones but making them celebrities at home.
It wasn’t, however, until 1925, when activist A. Philip Randolph began his long fight to organize and ultimately unionize the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, that salary and day-to-day working conditions began to improve. And that struggle continued into the last days, when the speed of affordable air travel caught the public’s fancy and the Pullman porter slipped away.
In the years following the civil rights movement, black pride was enunciated through chants of “black power.” Not only did these men’s contributions fade within popular culture, but a generation of black youth (who were beginning to see possibilities opening) looked upon these men with unease as semi-elevated servants.
What people tend to forget, says Raymond Butler of the Randolph Institute, is that there aren’t “too many black families who can’t trace those who work on the road. They worked those jobs so that their children could have better.”
A Chance to Recognize Some Unsung Heroes
Gracie Murphy, 37, a product of the younger generation, read Perata’s book (in which Smock and his brothers are featured) and wanted to dig deeper. Hot off Colin Powell’s push for Americans to volunteer, Murphy, who’d grown up in the San Fernando Valley before moving to Sacramento, decided to inquire about docent work at the California Railroad Museum.
It didn’t take a long look back on her own family tree to find a tenured railroad man. Her uncle Ashley Mason (after whom her son is named) worked as a porter from 1918 to 1962. Other than some certificates, photos and his 35-years-of-service pin, she knows little of him. As tribute to him and the other faceless, often nameless men, Murphy figured she would pitch an idea to the museum’s powers-that-be.
Drafting a proposal with Perata’s help, Murphy dreamed up an installation that would include parts of a Pullman exhibit on display at the African American Museum and Library in Oakland as well as panels and photographs from Perata’s book. She also wanted to invite and honor the living men, not just the memory of them.
“They shaped the whole notion of rail travel,” Murphy says. “We have linen and silver on the table and we take it for granted. It’s not so much that it’s a black thing. It’s history. It belongs to everyone.”
As a boy who grew up riding those great passenger trains with his family, and later in life worked as an Amtrak attendant himself during high-style passenger service’s twilight years, Perata also has noted that the majority of books, magazines and exhibits have focused on the physical equipment rather than on the people who worked on it.
“What made those trains and the railroad great [was] the service,” Perata notes. “The train itself was just a cold piece of steel.”
Despite the lengthy guest lists and all the good intentions, the tribute Perata and Murphy hoped for rests deep in the valley separating expectations from reality, with nothing to bridge it.
The museum’s staff sees it as a communication breakdown. “I’m a bit surprised that they weren’t happy,” says Kathy Taylor, executive director of the museum foundation. “Had I known that, I would have done something about it. Babe here talking to people was a great experience for the public. . . . We didn’t have enough time [to make it a] real huge event.”
To which Murphy responds: “I had nothing but time on my hands. All I needed was their OK to invite people. But they dragged their feet.”
Just Another Bump Along the Way
Tangled somewhere in the middle is Smock. Smock isn’t the sort who would tell you, straight out, if he were offended or hurt. His demeanor is as crisp and unwavering as the steam and starch press of his old uniform, his outlook broad and unhindered.
This afternoon, back home, that bump on the rails now days behind him, he’s seated in his small, spare living room, which overlooks the golf course’s ninth hole at Country Village, a retirement community in Mira Loma, spitting distance from Riverside proper. He sits in a low easy chair; his friend Bobby Rose, a tall Ed Bundy-type, slinks by carrying his own Styrofoam cup and his smokes to sit awhile.
“I’m being interviewed over here, Bobby--come in, sit down and be quiet!” Smock mock-snaps. Bobby takes a seat, zips it. Soon he’s cat-napping. Smock’s daughter Erica, 9 (he has five children, the oldest now 60), flipping a cobalt blue Play-Doh pizza, skips in and out of the room now buzzing with visitors. Smock’s only salute to his years on the railroad are some videotapes he keeps stacked on his TV, and a wall with a few photographs of him, brothers George and Virgil and some friends clustered around a story.
Born in Los Angeles in 1918, Babe, the youngest in a long line of train men (thus the nickname), says the railroad hadn’t been his first choice. It was music, “but there was no field for me. I played violin. My teacher took me as far as she could and . . . wanted to know if I would like to further my music, which I did at that particular time.” Smock lights up a Tareyton, but not before asking if the smoke might bother anyone. “So she wrote to the Cleveland Conservatory of Music, and to the Juilliard School, and when they found out that I was black there was no openings. That was 1936. So I said forget it. My father asked me if I wanted a job on the railroad, and I said no. But then, later, I said I would go. And the first trip I made out of town, the man gave me a $100 tip! Music went out of the window. From then on I stayed on the railroad. I hawked the violin for $2 to go to a USC football game. I lost all the interest in music.”
The tips never got much bigger than that first-blush windfall, but that was OK by Babe. By then he was caught by the rhythm of a life that changed every day like a set of fresh sheets--always a new vista, a new start. “I was on what you call the rip track,” he remembers. “I ran wild. I could be in Chicago today and be in New York tomorrow. Come back two days later and be in Washington . . . Boston or Omaha, Nebraska.”
He rode some of the nation’s most luxurious and storied trains--the 20th Century Limited, the Broadway, the Bostonian, the Columbine. He played host to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, his wife, Eleanor, her friend and frequent traveling companion Mary McCleod Bethune, the president of the National Council of Negro Women and color-bar-crossing soloist Marian Anderson.
“She was traveling with her company . . . sitting in the lounge. These people were so busy looking, I started to tell that man--'You’re gonna have to turn that paper over if you’re going to read it.’ It was upside down!”
It certainly wasn’t all high-class and glitter. “As I’ve said: the good, the bad and the ugly. We’d have those who’d call you ‘boy’ . . . thought he was a big shot when he’d say that. My brother Virgil used to say: ‘Boy’s’ not on this trip. He stayed at home.’ ”
But the customers were easy compared to the Pullman Co. “You’re living so much hell working for the company, everything else is easy. You’d grin and bear it. But when I come along in ’37, the Brotherhood had just been formed . . . we could go to the Brotherhood if we had grievances. . . . Before, you were just automatically fired if you say, ‘I’m not going out tonight because I don’t feel good.’ ”
Maintaining Dignity for the Family Name
Smock says that weathering it, for the most part, was about having a strong sense of who you were, despite any and all that was hurled your way. To be sure, some broke down, spent their last days mulling over old anger and distrust. “We were in the younger set, and we ignored it, but the old porters, they would get huff and puff with it. But I would ignore them.”
For G.W. Smock, no amount of money was worth losing face, tarnishing a family name.
“From the very beginning in my family, my folks taught us to be in the courteous manner--it was ‘Yes, sir’ and ‘No, sir,’ that had bearing on us. Those old porters with their ‘Yassuh’ and ‘Nossuh,’ head bowing and scraping, that was their tactics--but I was raised with an intelligence. I’ve always felt that intelligence would get you ahead of anyone who wants to belittle ya.
“I don’t have wealth, but I do have the presence of mind to be intelligent. A person can treat you like a dog, but if you treat them with intelligence it belittles them.”
“They didn’t give you no Rolex in Sacramento?” Bobby, who’s been snoozing in the corner, opens one eye.
“What, didn’t they give you a plaque or nothin’?”
But Smock, characteristically, prefers not to stay there in that low place. “I didn’t pay no attention to it.” He steers the questioning outward, “Everything was free. . . . It was a vacation as far as I was concerned . . . I got a pen, a clip to put your keys on.” The old coping mechanism kicks in, like the spring action of a pocket watch protecting the delicate crystal.
From this vantage, all said and done, how does Smock see his career, his life? “I don’t feel slighted.”
His reward came years ago; it still comes every day. “I learned more out of that Pullman car than you could have taught me at school. It took me down to New Orleans to find out that King was coming on with his kids and the Audubon Society down there wouldn’t even let them go into the Audubon Park. When I was going to school they wanted us to save our pennies to send back to the Audubon society, yet we couldn’t even go to the park!
“I’ve been down there. I’ve seen it. All. And I say: ‘Babe Smock, you are lucky. You are Godsent lucky’ . . . I’m like that poem of Langston Hughes': ‘I Am Somebody.’ I feel that I am somebody. I’ve seen it, I’ve been there, I’ve done it. I’ve done some good and I’ve done some wrong, and I don’t have no regrets for none of it. The good Lord called me today, and he said: ‘I want you up here.’ Then he said, ‘No. You’re not finished yet.’ ”