Civil rights exhibit powered by family memories

Steve TaylorFor years, Steve Taylor ’79, business administration, shared the stories of his Pullman porter grandfather mainly with family and close friends. Occasionally, a visitor to Taylor’s office at Northwestern Mutual in De Pere would ask about the keepsakes there — his grandfather’s uniform, manual and union pin.

That changed when UW-Green Bay history professor Andy Kersten met with the National Railroad Museum’s Michael Telzrow. Kersten had just completed a book on A. Philip Randolph, the man who organized the porters to create the first African-American labor union.

Kersten was confident an exhibit using the museum’s Pullman sleeper would have mass appeal. Telzrow agreed.

“(The Pullman Porter) story was just such a compelling story, and we had the car (an authentic Pullman sleeper in good condition),” Telzrow said an interview with the Green Bay Press-Gazette.

The Pullman cars — essentially “hotels on wheels,” were made for luxury and overnight travel. Those who served had well-paying jobs by Jim Crow standards but were subject to long hours, demanding duty and painstaking work rules.

When Taylor learned of the museum’s plans for a permanent exhibit, “Pullman Porters: From Service to Civil Rights,” he felt compelled to share both his keepsakes and an oral history of his late grandfather, Emmanual Hurst.

The museum worked with Balance Studios of Green Bay to create an avatar — a computer-generated three-dimensional image — based on the likeness of Hurst. Through video monitors, the avatar guides visitors through the car using Hurst’s own words (as related by Taylor). He shares stories about the struggles and triumphs of the black porters, and the importance of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters to the U.S. civil rights movement.

“The day before the public opening was the first opportunity my brother and I had to see the exhibit,” Taylor said. “We had no idea the magnitude of this exhibit. The restoration of the car, the multimedia presentations, the display of our grandfather’s items, we were overwhelmed. My grandfather died 21 years ago. He was a modest, conservative man, who never would have imagined being part of an exhibit like this.

“I was only about three of four years old when I remember my family dropping him off at the train station for his next job. I can still see him walking toward the station in his uniform and his hat, and his “grip” (suitcase). My family used to pick him up at the train station, and he would tell us stories of the people he met, or describe his favorite route. When we were older and more curious, we asked him a lot of questions. We loved trains and my grandfather used to give us the timetables of his routes, so we could point to exactly when he was at any given time… New York, Cleveland, Canada. He traveled to every state and every providence of Canada.”

Taylor said Hurst was proud of being a porter, but it wasn’t without its struggles.

“Our grandfather much preferred to tell us about the good things and the good people,” Taylor remembers. “But he shared in the hardships, too, and taught us not to put up with disrespect, and he gave us ways to cope with adversity. He was a great believer in education, and told us ‘I have a great job, but you can do better.’”

Taylor, already an active volunteer in the community (Green Bay Holiday Parade, Phoenix Fund, Family Violence Center) now hopes to volunteer at the Railroad Museum, as well.

“I want to take my friends through the exhibit, yes, but I also want to help educate kids on the importance of the civil rights movement and the stepping stones laid by my grandfather and his peers.”