sollie-mitchel_web.jpgSpecial to South Florida Times

It was an evening of nostalgia Saturday for many who attended the inaugural program of the National Black Railroader's Historical Society.

The newly launched organization piggybacked with the Miami-Dade Chapter of the A. Philip Randolph Institute’s Norman Hill Scholarship Dinner and the Gold Coast Railroad Museum to install its first board of directors and inducted as lifetime members local and national railroad families and employees.

Most guests came dressed in white to honor the 45th anniversary of the A. Philip Randolph Institute. The local chapter has named its scholarship for Hill, who served as national president until 2004, when Clayola Brown was elected. 

"We were privileged to introduce one generation of railroad men to another at this event," said Femi Folami-Browne, who, with the Rev. Alan Laird, co-founded the National Black Railroader's Historical Society.

"For example, we introduced 92-year-old Sollie [Mitchell] to Carlyle Smith, who was the engineer for the Obama/Biden campaign whistle-stop train, a first for an African-American engineer. We know that Obama was later elected the first African-American president, another first for this country. It's important for us to capture these moments because no one else is doing it."

Smith told the audience it had been a historic moment for him, “knowing that I was bringing the first black president to Washington."

Smith, who was one of the honorees, said the train trip with Obama on board had been a joyous ride. "Michelle Obama celebrated her birthday on the train," he said.

Smith was also amazed that at one time in America blacks were only allowed to be servants on the trains. "And here I am, a black man, bringing the first black president to Washington. I'll tell this story over and over again for the rest of my life," he said.

Also honored was the first black all-woman, all black Amtrak crew, who, in 1994, took the first rail passenger train from Washington to New York. The women are Alice Winston, Lisa Harris and Pamela Beckham.

Other honorees included locals Archie Ayers and his wife Georgia Jones Ayers, who were inducted as lifetime members because of their joint contribution to black railway history by sharing their oral histories and especially for keeping the story of the Railroad Shop Colored Addition in the minds of black Miami.

Blacks in that neighborhood were forcibly removed from their homes one night so the land could be used to build a school for whites.

Clarence L. Edwards was honored for his many years of advocacy for the employment of African Americans in the passenger railway industry.

Percy Lee was recognized for being the original chef who prepared meals on the Illinois Central for more than 38 years.

“Our goal is to capture the stories of all black railroaders and their contributions to the industry,” Folami-Browne said. “We came up with the idea that there needed to be an national infrastructure that would capture the oral histories of African Americans who worked in the industry post-Civil War era, while honoring African Americans like the Pullman porters."

Folami-Browne said the Gold Coast Railroad Museum, 12450 SW 152nd St. in South Miami-Dade, has a restored Jim Crow Pullman car from that period of American history — the Ferdinand Magellan Presidential Pullman Car. It is believed that President Harry Truman gave speeches from the back of that car, one of the unique railroad cars custom built for the president. It was originally built in 1928 and was rebuilt for maximum protection and presented 14 years later to Roosevelt.

The society held two events at the museum as part of its inauguration celebration.

Sollie Mitchel, 92, a Pullman porter during the Jim Crow years, told of how he was a "caretaker" on the 1963 Freedom Train to Washington, and he recalled that the late M. Athalie Range, famed Miami activist and businesswoman, had been one of the passengers.

"That was before Amtrak," he said.

Mitchell has a colorful history. During World War II, he served as a weaponry trainer and was the only black to work as a clerk in the office of General Douglas MacArthur. After the war, he came home to become a member of the Pullman Porters, while working with the Atlantic coastline Railway, now known as CSX.  He graduated from then Florida Memorial College and lives in Jacksonville.

“I've enjoyed my life and seeing you tonight gives me the will to still live," he said.

Winifred Seymour Sr., who was honored posthumously, was 94 when he died June 7, just days before the celebration. He had worked for the Atchison Topeka and Santa Fe railways and had worked directly with Asa Philip Randolph, for whom the institute is named, and C. L. Dellums, in the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters as the international secretary/treasurer.

Miami-Dade County School Board Member Dorothy Bendross-Mindingall presented a proclamation for the occasion and said she would work to see that the history of blacks in the railroad industry is taught in Miami-Dade County public schools.

“We already have the curriculum… this is a chapter that has been left out and all our children should know about these great forerunners," she said.

Lovette McGill, president of APRI’s Miami chapter, one of 152 in 32 states, said her chapter has existed since 1987. The event is its main fundraiser to provide scholarships to high school graduates who are going on to college. This year's recipient of the Norman Hill Scholarship is Deborah Breedlove, a 2011 graduate of Booker T. Washington High School. In addition to $3,000, she received a laptop from the organization.

"Thank you, Jesus," said her grandmother, Beauty Griffin, when the award was announced.


RAILROAD PI0NEER:  Sollie Mitchel, 92, right, was a Pullman porter during the Jim Crow years and was a "caretaker" on the 1963 Freedom Train to Washington, D.C. With him is  Lovette McGill, president of  Miami chapter of the A. Philip Randolph Institute. They appeared at the inaugural program of the National Black Railroader's Historical Society on Saturday.