Obit of the Day: One of the Last of the Pullman Porters
George Pullman was quick to recognize an untapped resource widely available at the end of the Civil War - freed slaves. The sleeping car baron wanted to give his passengers a luxury experience - he called his cars “hotels on wheels” - and for that he wanted the best service. Mr. Pullman searched for men who were raised to be subservient and invisible and he found them in the South’s former slave population. The Pullman Porter was born.
By the peak of U.S. rail travel in the 1920s and ’30s, there were more than 20,000 Pullman Porters working the railways. Pullman was the biggest single employer of Black workers in the United States.
Often called “George,” a degrading custom that held from the antebellum South when slaves were called their master’s name*, these men were symbols of respect and mobility throughout Black communities nationwide. (They were noted for their role in encouraging the movement of Blacks from the South to the North during the Great Migration after World War II.) Paid far below a living wage, the porters were forced to live on tips from passengers which led to their legendary reputation for anticipating customer needs.
Milton Jones, a Chicago native, began working for Pullman in 1942. Working on various routes across the country, he often worked 20 hour shifts. In addition to the long hours, poor salary and demeaning names (Mr. Jones did once tell a passenger his actual name when he was called “George” and was reported for the action), he had to deal with other indignities that seem unconscionable today.
Porters paid for their own uniforms, were docked pay if passengers took any property from the cars, went unpaid for sleeping hours, and were forced to eat behind a black curtain in most dining cars to segregate them from white passengers. Mr. Jones felt the last was the most demeaning since passengers felt free to interact with the porters throughout the trip, but would not deign to watch them eat.
Mr. Jones recognized the opportunity working as a porter represented in a country where few Blacks traveled regularly. He would work as a porter for “37 years and 2 months,” first at Pullman until 1968 when the company went out of business as private rail travel plummeted with the expansion of airlines. He then would move to the Santa Fe rail which was consolidated into Amtrak in 1971. It was at that point that railways stopped hiring only Black porters. Mr. Jones retired in 1979.
Walter Jones, who drove until one day in 2012 when his wife of 58 years, Helen, asked “Aren’t you driving on the wrong side of the road?”, died on February 13, 2014 at the age of 98.
(Image of an advertisement, circa 1942-1945, for Pullman sleeping cars focusing on the service of Pullman Porters. The ad reads, as best as I can tell, “Next time you take a trip, chances are you can ride in Pullman comfort. That’s because the way Pullman works with the railroads - through the centrally controlled “pool” of sleeping cars - makes it possible to take care of military needs and accommodate more civilians, too. So always ask for Pullman space when you plan to travel! We’ll welcome you aboard a Pullman sleeping car as we’ve welcomed aboard every Pullman passenger for more than 80 years - with service, comfort and safety, that no other way of going places fast can match.” The ad is courtesy of www.cruiselinehistory.com)
* Oddly enough calling the porters “George” angered another men who were actually named George and in 1914 Chicago lumber magnate George Delany formed the Society for the Prevention of Calling Sleeping Car Porters George. Created out of racism - white men did not want to be associated with lower-level Black porters - the group would have 33,000 members including Cardinal George Mundelein of Chicago, King George V, and George Herman “Babe” Ruth. The group forced Pullman in 1926 to place placards in every sleeping car giving the porters actual first and last name.
Ben Isaacs, the oldest known Pullman Porter who died at the age of 107
Obit of the Day: Walter Ehlers, Medal of Honor Winner
Walter and Roland Ehlers enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1940 while war was raging in Europe but before America’s entry. The brothers were assigned to the same infantry regiment until just days before the planned invasion of Normandy (also known as D-Day, June 6, 1944). Military commanders decided to split up the brothers to increase the odds that both would survive.
Staff Sergeant Walter Ehlers led a platoon of 12 men onto Omaha Beach getting each man safely through the gauntlet of machine gun and artillery fire without a single casualty. Mr. Ehlers considered that his greatest achievement.
As the Allied forces continued to advance through Normandy, Sgt. Ehlers performed acts of bravery that are jaw-dropping even 70 years later. On June 9 Sgt. Ehlers almost single-handedly took out two machine gun nests and two mortar batteries. The next day, finding his platoon unable to advance and ordered to withdraw the sergeant stood up, drawing fire towards him so that his men could retreat. During that time he was shot in the back but carried out another wounded soldier and even returned, still under fire, to retrieve the platoon’s automatic rifle.
More than a month later, Sgt. Ehlers received the news that his older brother Roland was killed when an artillery shell hit his landing craft. Sgt. Ehlers would later say it was the only time during the war that he broke down.
On December 19, 1944 S. Sgt. Walter Ehlers was awarded the Medal of Honor. He was recognized for his “intrepid leadership, indomitable courage, and fearless aggressiveness.”
After the war, Mr. Ehlers returned briefly to his hometown of Manhattan, Kansas before moving to Los Angeles. He hoped to become a film star, and earned one screen credit for The Long Gray Line, which starred Tyrone Power. Mr. Ehlers played West Point cadet Mike Shannon.
Working for 50 years with the Veterans Administration, Mr. Ehlers did find his place in media appearing in several documentaries about D-Day and World War II. Most famously, Mr. Ehlers was featured in Ken Burns’ series, The War.
Walter Ehlers, the last of 12 men who received Medals of Honor for the Normandy campaign*, died on February 20, 2014 at the age of 94.
* Nine of those men received their medals posthumously.
Obit of the Day: The Oldest Living Holocaust Survivor
When the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia in 1939, Alice Herz-Sommer was considered one of the greatest pianists in Prague. To the Germans she was simply a Jew.
Four years after the invasion, having already lost the privilege of performing concerts or teaching non-Jews, Mrs. Herz-Sommer, her six-year-old son Rafael, and her husband Leopold Sommer were sent to a special concentration camp in Terezin (Theresienstadt), north of Prague.
Set up as a “model camp” for Red Cross workers to visit. Terezin was populated with Jewish artists and musicians. There Mrs. Herz-Sommer was given the opportunity to play her music, performing hundreds of times while imprisoned. It inspired not only her, but all the prisoners in the camp: “Music is magic…It was like food to them. If they hadn’t come [to hear us], they would have died long before. As we would have.”
But Terezin was no safer than any other camp. Of the 144,000 Jews sent there only 17,000 survived the war. Leopold Sommer was one of 1000 men sent to Auschwitz in 1944. Just before he was shipped off, he made Alice swear not to follow him. The promise saved her life, because only days later the Nazis asked wives to follow their husbands - all those who volunteered were killed. Mr. Sommer survived Auschwitz but died of an illness in Dachau in 1945.
Mrs. Herz-Sommer and Rafael were liberated with others in 1945 by the Soviet Army. In 1947, the two moved to Palestine (later Israel) to live with Mrs. Herz-Sommer’s twin sister Marianne (or “Mizzi”) and their other sister Irma. For forty years, Mrs. Herz-Sommer played piano and taught at the Jerusalem Conservatory. In 1986 she moved to with Rafael, a cellist, and his family to London*. She would live there for the last 28 years of her life.
Born in 1903, more than a decade before World War I, when Czechoslovakia did not exist but was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Mrs. Herz-Sommer died on February 23, 2014 at the age of 110. She was the subject of the 2014 Academy Award-nominated short documentary, The Lady in 6: How Music Saved My Life. One of the film’s producers, Frederic Bohbot, was saddened that she died only one week before the Oscar ceremony: “We all came to believe that she would just never die…There was no question in my mind, ‘would she ever see the Oscars?’”
(Image of Alice Herz practicing piano at the German music academy at Prague in 1920 when she was 17 years old. She was the youngest student at the academy when she enrolled. Photo is copyright Droemer Verlag and courtesy of Suddeutsche.de)
* Rafael died at the age of 64 in 2001 after suffering a heart attack following a concert in Israel
Also of interest:
Edith Steiner-Kraus - Another survivor who was imprisoned at Terezin
And Obit of the Day’s Holocaust page for more inspirational stories