What does Black History Month have to do with MTA’s Grand Central Terminal (GCT) Centennial set to kick-off Friday, February 1? Ask any mature Black person and they can tell you that the importance of the railroad has never been fully told. The railroad played three major roles for African-Americans: 1. Exodus—Millions escaped to the North from the South’s racial segregation laws; 2. Jobs – Railroads provided respectable jobs that led to the nation’s first Black union, a labor history milestone; and 3. The Civil Rights movement and the rise of the Black middle class developed as a result of early Black railroad workers.
Second Largest American migration: Grand Central Terminal was the gateway to all points north and west. White Europeans landing on Ellis Island were the first largest immigrant group. But the second greatest migration in US history took place between 1915-1970 by 6 million Blacks from rural South to urban north, according to “The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How it Changed America,” by Nicholas Lemann. Buried deep in 20th century history, narratives of Southern Blacks who made the long trek and passed through Grand Central Terminal are just becoming known. Several epic stories are described in the masterpiece, “The Warmth of Other Suns,” by Isabel Wilkerson.
Grand Central Terminal was the terminus of many competitive railroad companies long before the MTA formed. The grandest of them was the Pullman Company run by industrialist George Mortimer Pullman—whose luxurious sleeper cars with elegant dining and service, revolutionized train travel. “Behind almost every successful African American, there is a Pullman porter,” wrote Larry Tye in his book ”Rising From the Rail: Pullman Porters and the Making of the Black Middle Class.” The term “red carpet” treatment comes from that era when the porters rolled out red carpets over the length of Grand Central Terminal’s platform for the rich and famous to board the New York-Chicago Palace.
American Labor History: From 1868-1968, the presence African American railroad attendants working as “red cap” porters, dining car waiters, firemen, brakemen, maids and cooks, had become a tradition. By 1920, a peak time for railroad travel, over 20,000 African Americans were working as Pullman Porters and rail staff. This was the largest category of Black labor in the US and Canada at the time, according to the A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum documents.
The Pullman Porters organized and formed the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in 1925, the first African American labor union to sign a collective bargaining agreement with a major US company. Their mottos were: Services not Servitude and Brotherhood on the Job Every Second. Led by A. Philip Randolph, this union fought to improve working conditions, wages and is still considered the harbinger of the Civil Rights movement. “If Martin Luther King was the father of the Civil Rights movement, then A. Philip Randolph was the grandfather of the Civil Rights Movement,” Mr. Tye said in a New York Times article.
GCT Centennial Activities: You may not see many Black History artifacts at the Grand Central Terminal Centennial Celebration kick-off on February 1. But as you enjoy activities in the grand elegance and majesty of this historic railroad station, understand that it was a special place for real lives full of mystery, determination, and a people making history. Happy GCT Centennial! Happy Black History Month!