Federal Writers' Project - Life Histories/2016/Spring/Section 021/John Lowery

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John Lowery
Bornc. 1870-1881
Chesterfield County, South Carolina
DiedApril 7, 1952
ResidenceCharlotte, North Carolina
NationalityAmerican
OccupationPullman Porter
A Pullman porter assisting a passenger with her luggage

Overview[edit]

John Lowery was an African-American porter interviewed by Cora Bennett and Mary R. Northrop as a part of the Federal Writer's Project

Biography[edit]

Childhood[edit]

John Lowery was born in rural South Carolina, where he grew up as one of twenty children on his father’s sixty acre farm. He received no formal education.[1]

Later Life[edit]

He moved to Charlotte, North Carolina in 1901 and took a job with the Pullman Company. He saw many modernizations in the rail industry, such as steel carriages, and the shift from kerosene to electric lights. When he began working he made only 50¢ a day, with his salary peaking at $6 a day during the First World War. He married his first wife in 1902 and they had ten children. She never worked, and when her health declined he had to pick up odd jobs for the company such as utility work and cleaning cars in the railyard.[2] A year after her death Lowery married his second wife, a schoolteacher named Lucy[3]. Together they had four children. His children all received a primary education and Lowery was intent on sending them on to university, with his daughter planning to attend Johnson C. Smith University.[4]

Porter[edit]

Lowery worked for seven years as a porter for the Thomas Tourist Agency. In this position he worked in the sleeper cars of passenger rails, where he would make beds, answer requests, and serve meals in the dining car. At the time of interview he lived off a wage of $3 a day. Lowery was often gone for long trips, even going on the presidential campaign trail with Al Smith for sixty-four days. Through his job he was able to visit most US states as well as parts of Canada and Mexico. This was extremely unusual for the time, as it was financially difficult if not impossible for most African-Americans to travel.[5]

Death[edit]

John Lowery died of Hypertensive Heart Disease in his home on April 7, 1952.[6]

Porter Life in the Twentieth Century[edit]

Daily Life[edit]

George Pullman first began hiring former slaves as porters on his railcars in the late 1860’s, and it remained an exclusively black position until a century later in the 1960’s. Being a porter was the first well-paying job available to many former slaves, and by the 1920's train personnel was the largest category of African-American labor in the United States and Canada. While they did get to travel extensively, porters had to be away from their families for long periods of time, and while on tour their own accommodations were poor and they often got little rest.[7]

The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters[edit]

On August 25, 1925 A. Philip Randolph formed the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first successful African-American labor union. Despite company retaliation, membership grew and eventually the Brotherhood joined the American Federation of Labor in 1935.[8] Under the labor-friendly policies of the New Deal the Brotherhood had great success, and their working rules became "some of the best that are possessed by any trade union in the country."[9] Randolph also used the union's power to address larger issues such as fighting communism, building the African-American middle class, and supporting the civil rights movement.[10]

Rise of African-American Colleges and Universities[edit]

Education for African-Americans was rare in rural areas, and while more easily accessible in the cities it was still often never completed. Following the end of slavery many schools were founded by white northern missionary organizations, with double objectives of spreading their denomination and ending the "menace" that uneducated African-Americans posed to society. After the Second Morrill Act in 1890 the government required all states with segregated universities to found public Black colleges or forfeit federal funding. [11] Despite inferior funding the schools grew quickly, and if one could finish high school and get accepted to a Black college, a degree "could close poverty’s door for that individual."[12] As the schools grew and diversified a rift began between Booker T. Washington and white industrial philanthropists who supported technical education versus W.E.B. Du Bois and Black intellectuals who preferred a liberal arts curriculum, which would remain until desegregation after Brown v. Board of Education in 1954.[13]

Notes[edit]

  1. Bennett, Cora and Mary R. Northrop. “I’ve Seen These States.” Charlotte, North Carolina, June 20, 1939. In the Federal Writers’ Project papers Folder 292, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  2. Bennett, Cora and Mary R. Northrop. “I’ve Seen These States.” Charlotte, North Carolina, June 20, 1939. In the Federal Writers’ Project papers Folder 292, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  3. 1940 United States Federal Census, Charlotte, Mecklenberg County, North Carolina, Roll: T627_2941; Page: 1B; Enumeration District: 60-5, digital image s.v. "John Lowery," Ancestry.com. March 2016. http://ancestry.com
  4. Bennett, Cora and Mary R. Northrop. “I’ve Seen These States.” Charlotte, North Carolina, June 20, 1939. In the Federal Writers’ Project papers Folder 292, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  5. Bennett, Cora and Mary R. Northrop. “I’ve Seen These States.” Charlotte, North Carolina, June 20, 1939. In the Federal Writers’ Project papers Folder 292, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  6. North Carolina State Board of Health, Bureau of Vital Statistics. North Carolina Death Certificates. Microfilm S.123. Rolls 19-242, 280, 313-682, 1040-1297. North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh, North Carolina.
  7. Bruinius, Harry. "Pullman Porters Tell Tales of a Train Ride through History." The Christian Science Monitor. February 29, 2008. Accessed March 05, 2016. http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Society/2008/0229/p20s01-ussc.html
  8. Palmer, Colin A., ed. "Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters." Encyclopedia of African- American Culture and History. 2nd ed. Vol. 1. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2006.
  9. "EXECUTIVES OF BROTHERHOOD OF SLEEPING CAR PORTERS." Atlanta Daily World (1932-2003), Sep 05, 1937. Accessed March 08, 2016 http://search.proquest.com/docview/490538652?accountid=14244
  10. Palmer, Colin A., ed. "Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters." Encyclopedia of African- American Culture and History. 2nd ed. Vol. 1. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2006.
  11. Gasman, Marybeth. "Historically Black Colleges and Universities." SAGE Reference -. January 1, 2012. Accessed March 08, 2016. http://dx.doi.org/10.4135/9781452218533.n336
  12. Coleman, Mary Delorse. "The Rural Poor in the American South: Case Studies of Exits from 20th Century Poverty." Poverty & Public Policy 1, no. 1 (March 2009): 72-116. Accessed March 5, 2016. Wiley Online Library.
  13. Gasman, Marybeth. "Historically Black Colleges and Universities." SAGE Reference -. January 1, 2012. Accessed March 08, 2016. http://dx.doi.org/10.4135/9781452218533.n336

References[edit]

Bennett, Cora and Mary R. Northrop. “I’ve Seen These States.” Charlotte, North Carolina, June 20, 1939. In the Federal Writers’ Project papers Folder 292, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Bruinius, Harry. "Pullman Porters Tell Tales of a Train Ride through History." The Christian Science Monitor. February 29, 2008. Accessed March 05, 2016. http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Society/2008/0229/p20s01-ussc.html.

Coleman, Mary Delorse. "The Rural Poor in the American South: Case Studies of Exits from 20th Century Poverty." Poverty & Public Policy 1, no. 1 (March 2009): 72-116. Accessed March 5, 2016. Wiley Online Library.

"EXECUTIVES OF BROTHERHOOD OF SLEEPING CAR PORTERS." Atlanta Daily World (1932-2003), Sep 05, 1937. Accessed March 08, 2016 http://search.proquest.com/docview/490538652?accountid=14244.

Gasman, Marybeth. "Historically Black Colleges and Universities." SAGE Reference -. January 1, 2012. Accessed March 08, 2016. http://dx.doi.org/10.4135/9781452218533.n336.

North Carolina State Board of Health, Bureau of Vital Statistics. North Carolina Death Certificates. Microfilm S.123. Rolls 19-242, 280, 313-682, 1040-1297. North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh, North Carolina.

Palmer, Colin A., ed. "Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters." Encyclopedia of African- American Culture and History. 2nd ed. Vol. 1. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2006.

1940 United States Federal Census, Charlotte, Mecklenberg County, North Carolina, Roll: T627_2941; Page: 1B; Enumeration District: 60-5, digital image s.v. "John Lowery," Ancestry.com. March 2016. http://ancestry.com