Lee Wesley Gibson, who was believed to be the oldest living Pullman Porter, died June 25 in his Los Angeles home. He was 106-years-old.
Mr. Gibson first worked as a coach attendant for the Union Pacific Railroad beginning in 1936. He was later promoted to Pullman Porter.
Pullman Porters were men hired to work as porters on sleeping cars. After the Civil War, George Pullman, owner of The Pullman Car Co., a Chicago-based company that manufactured the Pullman Sleeping Car, hired black men to work in the cars.
In 1925, labor leader A. Philip Randolph founded the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first African American-led labor union with the goal of improving working conditions for porters and maids. Many of the porters, however, belonged to a company-sponsored union, and they were reluctant to risk their jobs to join Randolph, according to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.
The 1934 Railway Act outlawed company unions and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters found itself in a much more favorable position.
In 1935, the BSCP secured an international charter from the American Federation of Labor and in 1937, BSCP signed an agreement with the Pullman Company that led to higher wages and improved employment conditions for black workers.
In 1995, Lyn Hughes, author of “An Anthology of Respect: The Pullman Porters National Historic Registry of African American Railroad Employees,” founded the National A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum, which focused on the role the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters played in the U.S. labor movement. The museum is based in Chicago’s historic Pullman neighborhood on the city’s far South Side.
From Pullman Porters to the black middle class and black leaders
Pullman Porters built the black middle class. For example, Gibson purchased a new home in 1945 in South Los Angeles. He lived there until his death. U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Thurgood Marshall and former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown were descendants of Pullman porters. Marshall also was a porter. Malcolm X and photographer Gordon Parks also worked as porters. E. D. Nixon, who hired a 25 year-old Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to lead the 1955-1956 Montgomery, Ala., Bus Boycott, also was a Pullman Porter.
Gibson was born May 21, 1910, in Keatchie, La. When his parents separated, he moved with his mother to Marshall, Texas. He married his wife Beatrice in 1927. They had three daughters and they moved as a family to Los Angeles in 1936.
Pullman discontinued sleeping cars in 1968 and the porters were transferred to Union Pacific and Amtrak. Gibson retired from Union Pacific Railroad in 1974, having worked as a Pullman Porter for 38 years. Following retirement, he remained active in his church. He also assisted travelers as a volunteer at Los Angeles International Airport.
But that wasn’t all. He also managed tax return preparations at a local H and R Block office, and he served as regional manager for AARP’s tax preparation support program for senior citizens. He was recently featured in a Dodge car commercial that honored centenarians. His wife died in 2004. They had been married for 76 years.
Mr. Gibson is survived by their three daughters, six grandchildren, nineteen great-grandchildren, twenty-two great-great grandchildren and three great-great-great grandchildren.