Edit ModuleEdit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Perspectives: A Better Life

A former Pittsburgh television reporter recounts the lessons taught to him by his grandfather who spent more than four decades as a Pullman Porter.




Photo by chuck beard

 

My grandfather and I had a special relationship. After my father died when I was 9, he was the one who took me to Pirates games at Forbes Field. Even more importantly, he took me with him to Pennsylvania Station Downtown (now the Pennsylvanian). It was those trips that helped to define our relationship.

For 42 years, beginning in 1909, my grandfather was a Pullman Porter, servicing passengers in sleeping cars along routes of the Pennsylvania Railroad. He retired the year before I was born. But I was fascinated with Thomas L. Burrell’s stories about life on the railroad. Although the train he worked the longest — the Red Arrow between Detroit and New York — was no longer in service, there were still daytime trains (the Duquesne, Juniata and the Pennsylvania Limited) at the station when we visited occasionally so he could handle pension matters. The night trains I didn’t see because they left past my bedtime: the General, Manhattan Limited and the Broadway Limited. But their marquees were still visible above the track where they’d arrive, and all of that sparked my imagination.

My grandfather ordinarily had a caring and teaching tone with me, so it came as a shock the day I put on his Pullman hat, pretending I too worked on a train. “Take it off,” he said in a tone I’d never heard from him before. “Take it off!” I quickly did as he said. But I was baffled. After all, I may have been the only kid in my class who could name the stops on the Pennsylvania Railroad between Pittsburgh and New York — not that any of my classmates saw that as useful information.

My mother and grandmother later explained that his apparent anger wasn’t really aimed at me. Rather, it was directed toward what the hat represented to him — and what I represented to him.

In all of his stories about locomotives, sleeping cars and dining cars, the only conversation I can recall we had about dealing with people focused on his view of socio-economics and customer service. His growing up as one of 10 children in rural Rappahannock County, Va., in towns such as Peola Mills, Scrabble and Woodville, did not afford him a chance to study psychology. But his years on the road gave him a unique perspective.

“The people who always had money were the nicest people I ever dealt with,” I can remember him telling me. “But the folks who just recently were able to rub two nickels together would try to treat you like dirt.”

As I grew older, I understood the racial factor in all of this. The African-American men who labor leader A. Phillip Randolph organized into the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters were required to work 400 hours per month or 11,000 miles — whichever came first — to receive full pay. Those 400 hours spread over 31 days would average 12-hour days every day with no days off. The porters, who did a job deemed fit only for black people, depended on passenger tips, which usually added up to more than the base salary they were paid. And in the years between 1909 and 1952 when my grandfather worked for the Pullman Co., I can only imagine what kind of indignities he suffered.

And yet, as I look at what he accomplished, I am amazed. His pension records show that between 1924 and 1931, he earned a total of just $9,386.61, yet in 1925 he built a home in Beltzhoover. Within the black community, Pullman Porters had a degree of prestige because they had the pulse of distant cities (the black-owned Pittsburgh Courier used Porters for distribution in the South), and they knew the social graces and helped to build the black middle class.

But, there was the hat, representing the past, and there I was, representing the future. In his mind, the two were incompatible. He wanted more for me. I never put it on again.

My grandfather didn’t live long enough to see me on the air at KDKA-TV. But every time I did a live report from the federal courthouse, on the sidewalk of the old Pennsylvania Station across the street, I couldn’t help but think about my grandfather who used that same sidewalk — on his way to work.

Harold Hayes was a reporter for KDKA-TV for 36 years before his retirement in April 2016. 
 

Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit Module

Edit ModuleShow TagsEdit ModuleShow Tags
Edit Module Edit ModuleShow Tags

The Latest

Hungry for Something Good, Pittsburgh? Where We're Eating in July

Lidia Bastianich Shares Her American Dream in a New Memoir

PM Dining Critic Hal B. Klein talks to the celebrated chef, restauranteur, television host and author about grandparents, foraging and the plight of refugees seeking a better life in the United States.

They Prayed to Our Lady of the Roller Coaster

Two local priests –– riding the Phantom's Revenge to promote Catholic Day at Kennywood –– create a viral video. Along the way they deliver a most unusual sermon.

The Homestead Artist with a Worldwide Reputation

Jesse Best maintains a presence in New York and Tokyo. But, he says, Pittsburgh has been 10 times better to him than any other place.

The 400-Word Review: Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

The fifth "Jurassic Park" film is fun. Empty, somewhat disappointing fun.

Local Brewery Resolves Trademark Dispute With Sass

After Pitt ordered Voodoo Brewery to stop production of its "H2P American IPA," the company relaunched the beer under a new name.

Sprout Fund Passes the Torch

50 Pittsburghers to receive $1,000 Legacy Award to carry on the nonprofit’s vision.

Pirates Can Be Show Stoppers if They Follow Brault's Lead

A Broadway musical about the life and times of the Pittsburgh Pirates? The idea might not be as farfetched as you think.

Pirates Pitcher Steven Brault has Pretty Good Pipes Too

The Pirates reliever sang the national anthem Tuesday night before the Bucs hosted the Brewers at PNC Park. It's worth watching, especially for his teammates' reaction at the end.

Crime in the South Side Has Fallen Dramatically

Illegal activity plunged along East Carson Street following several new security measures.

Fired by City Paper — Charlie Deitch Won’t Be Silenced

The former editor of the Pittsburgh alt-weekly is creating his own "more inclusive" publication.

Czechoslovakia was Forged in Pittsburgh

Rick Sebak details how the establishment of the European nation began with a meeting Downtown.

Brick by Brick: Legos Go High Art

Made entirely out of Legos, the sculptures on the display at the Carnegie Science Center’s new Scaife Exhibit Gallery range from the whimsical to the otherworldly.

Mike Chen, Dean of the Chinese Kitchen

The owner of Everyday Noodles looks to encourage more regionally specific Chinese food in Pittsburgh restaurants.

MultiStories: Real Estate – The Machesney Building

Visitors can still ogle the lavish marble and bronze interior crafted to appeal to the original owner's banker and stockbroker tenants.
Edit Module
Edit ModuleShow Tags


They Prayed to Our Lady of the Roller Coaster

They Prayed to Our Lady of the Roller Coaster

Two local priests –– riding the Phantom's Revenge to promote Catholic Day at Kennywood –– create a viral video. Along the way they deliver a most unusual sermon.

Comments

Local Brewery Resolves Trademark Dispute With Sass

Local Brewery Resolves Trademark Dispute With Sass

After Pitt ordered Voodoo Brewery to stop production of its "H2P American IPA," the company relaunched the beer under a new name.

Comments


All the foodie news that's fit to blog
What Anthony Bourdain Meant to Me

What Anthony Bourdain Meant to Me

Reflecting on the loss of a person so many of us admired.

Comments

Northeast Kitchen Brings Northeastern Chinese Cuisine to Pittsburgh

Northeast Kitchen Brings Northeastern Chinese Cuisine to Pittsburgh

Chef You Shan Pei comes to Pittsburgh after cooking in Flushing, N.Y. restaurants for 18 years.

Comments


Not just good stuff. Great stuff.
The Five Best Spots to Get Pittsburgh-Themed Merchandise

The Five Best Spots to Get Pittsburgh-Themed Merchandise

Looking to show off your Pittsburgh love? Get your favorite city printed on basically anything at these local shops.

Comments

7 Best Pittsburgh-Area Places You Should Try for Doughnuts

7 Best Pittsburgh-Area Places You Should Try for Doughnuts

When you're craving the real deal, these local spots consistently churn out the very best.

Comments


The Other Moving Documentary About a Curious Pittsburgher

The Other Moving Documentary About a Curious Pittsburgher

In "Will Work For Views," the video artist and musician Weird Paul is a little bit Dr. Demento and a little bit Mister Rogers.

Comments

Man, There's a Lot Going on at Zone 28

Man, There's a Lot Going on at Zone 28

The relaunched entertainment complex in Harmarville is casting a wide net, with some success.

Comments


Mike Prisuta's Sports Section

A weekly look at the games people are playing and the people who are playing them.
Pirates Can Be Show Stoppers if They Follow Brault's Lead

Pirates Can Be Show Stoppers if They Follow Brault's Lead

A Broadway musical about the life and times of the Pittsburgh Pirates? The idea might not be as farfetched as you think.

Comments

Olczyk Embraces Awareness, Understanding to Fight Cancer

Olczyk Embraces Awareness, Understanding to Fight Cancer

Olczyk found out last August, in the wake of a six-hour surgery that removed 14 inches of his colon and “a tumor the size of my fist,” the severity of what he was suddenly confronting.

Comments


The movies that are playing in Pittsburgh –– and, more importantly, whether or not they're worth your time.
The 400-Word Review: Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

The 400-Word Review: Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

The fifth "Jurassic Park" film is fun. Empty, somewhat disappointing fun.

Comments

The 400-Word Review: Won't You Be My Neighbor?

The 400-Word Review: Won't You Be My Neighbor?

The documentary about Fred Rogers' work and philosophy inspires even more wonder about the television legend who called Pittsburgh home.

Comments


Everything you need to know about getting married in Pittsburgh today.
Toppers That Take the Cake

Toppers That Take the Cake

Over the traditional bride and groom standing on top of your cake? Try some of these different ideas for cake toppers.

Comments

Couple Shares Photo Spotlight With Four-Legged Friends

Couple Shares Photo Spotlight With Four-Legged Friends

This Pittsburgh couple is using their engagement photos to raise awareness about one of their most passionate causes.

Comments


Weekly inspiration for your home from the editors of Pittsburgh Magazine
PPG Paints Unveils 2019 Color of the Year: Night Watch

PPG Paints Unveils 2019 Color of the Year: Night Watch

Paying homage to the restorative power of nature, this deep green shade is one to watch in the coming year. Here’s how to use it on your walls.

Comments

Five Pittsburgh-Based Etsy Shops You Need to Know About

Five Pittsburgh-Based Etsy Shops You Need to Know About

From furniture to wall art and beyond, these local makers created one-of-a-kind pieces for your home or office.

Comments