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He Hired Formerly Enslaved Black Men Because They Knew How To Be 'Servile.' So They Formed A Union.

There once was a job that was critical to the nation's infrastructure and the spread of ideas and people across the nation, and it was done exclusively by African-American men. It also presented creative ways to work for a better world for everybody.

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“We are born in a Pullman house, fed from the Pullman shops, taught in the Pullman school, catechized in the Pullman Church, and when we die we shall go to the Pullman Hell.” — Pullman workers




The Company

George Pullman was one of the most well-known capitalists and entrepreneurs during a time of few rights for workers and extreme inequality between the classes. He found his niche by making sleeping cars for the newly expanding post-Civil War railroad system that brought people to various places in the country on a much more frequent basis. He sought to improve that system with luxury sleeping cars so rail travel would be much easier and more pleasant. He added multiple layers of service over the next decades, including gourmet meals, ultra-clean cars, opulent furnishings, and most importantly, very professional staff to make the travelers feel pampered.

Sleeping cars existed before Pullman, but he turned them into an extravagant mode of travel that the newly emerging middle class and the wealthy wanted to experience. He made his first luxury car around the end of the Civil War, and in fact, his first Pullman train car was the one that brought Abraham Lincoln’s body home to Illinois from Washington; it was a brilliant form of advertising, and it worked, since it was seen by millions. Orders piled up overnight from train companies.



The Workers

One of the key features of Pullman trains was the service. Pullman hired thousands of former slaves who had the experience of “serving” masters and their families, which translated to the clientele. But there was a strict divide among the labor: White conductors collected tickets and sold upgrades along the routes, while African-American porters carried luggage, cleaned the cars, shined shoes, cooked and served meals, and made travelers feel pampered. In addition to this divide was one of wages — white workers received on average six times as much as the porters, which meant the porters relied heavily on tips.

Meanwhile, next to the factory where he made these luxury train cars in Chicago, Pullman built housing, grocery stores, and just about everything else his workers would want. It sounds convenient, right? But company towns like this were prime opportunities for Pullman to screw his workers over by raising prices and rents at will, punishing and evicting anybody who dared to try to improve conditions or wages, and more. He prohibited independent newspapers and public speeches by the residents. His staff regularly inspected the workers’ housing to make sure that they were clean and could evict anybody with a few days’ notice.

All of this, plus a reduction in wages for longer work hours after the 1893 depression hit, resulted in a massive strike in 1894 that was ended by federal troops, ordered by President Grover Cleveland.



Hey, Porter

The real profit for Pullman was in filling the rail cars and providing a high-end service that people would pay for. Pullman sleeping cars expanded to even more markets. At its peak in the 1920s, there were 20,000 porters on the job — the most African-Americans employed by any company in history. There were a few women working on these trains as well; about one maid for every 50 porters was an African-American woman.

One of the few well-paying jobs for African-American men at the time, it was rather a treasured position to get. But the work was grueling; 400 hours a month on the job or 11,000 miles of travel were the minimum to get full-time pay. Basically, they lived on the trains — for around $22,000 a year in today’s dollars, supplemented by tips. They paid for their own clothing and lodging on layovers, and if any of the passengers made off with pillows or blankets, it was taken from their pay.

But the work hours were one of the biggest problems. When they slept, it was on couches in the smoking car, hidden from the passengers. In other words, they couldn’t even use the sleeping cars when they got their average three hours of sleep per night.

Additionally, it was a common practice for the porters to be called either “George” or a commonly used racial slur that begins with the letter “N.” And, effectively, “George” meant the same thing.

From 1909 to 1913, porters tried unsuccessfully to unionize three times to address some of these issues. In response, the company began its own union, which was of course a sham. But it distracted the efforts of workers long enough that it delayed further efforts at unionizing for another 12 years.

In 1925, the fledgling union elected A. Philip Randolph to head up the unionizing drive. He was a highly skilled labor and community organizer but never a porter and hadn’t even ridden on a luxury train car because African-Americans were not allowed to ride on the very cars that the porters serviced.



The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters

As soon as the union was formed, it put together a list of demands of the Pullman company:

1. A significant pay raise

2. Abolishing the practice of tipping

3. Adequate rest breaks

4. Increasing pensions

5. A name card in each car with the actual name of the porter

Since tips would often be more than actual wages, it seems counterintuitive that they would want to abolish them, right? But in reality, to get those tips, workers had to be subservient and rigidly obedient to white clientele. Removing them and raising wages would effectively remove one of the more humiliating parts of their job.

Of course, the company refused and began firing and spying on the organizers and union sympathizers. Everything had to go underground, including secret handshakes and passwords. A ladies' auxiliary unit composed of the wives of porters was formed, which was arguably one of the most critical components of the secret operations. One thing working in their favor was that trains going from city to city across the country provided great opportunities for distribution of literature, news, job information, and more.

It took 12 years for the porters to succeed. One key to victory was the 1935 passage of the National Labor Relations Act (with some pressure by Franklin Delano Roosevelt), which gave unions legal legs when it came to organizing and prevented some of the company's intimidation tactics used to keep the union from forming. 1935 was the first negotiating session between the company and the union. That same year, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters became the first African-American union recognized by the American Federation of Labor (AFL). The union signed its first contract with Pullman in August 1937.

The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, fresh off a significant victory, went on to help integrate other jobs and unions across the country.

If you have the time (about a half-hour), here is an absolutely wonderful podcast from the folks at "Stuff You Missed in History Class."

It fills in a lot of fascinating details that complete the story nicely, including the achievements of the Brotherhood and A. Philip Randolph leading up to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s.

A final, rather fascinating note: George Pullman was so reviled by the people who worked for him that he left specific instructions to be entombed in concrete and steel so that workers wouldn’t defile his body.

Images courtesy of Letters of Love
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When Grace Berbig was 7 years old, her mom was diagnosed with leukemia, a cancer of the body’s blood-forming tissues. Being so young, Grace didn’t know what cancer was or why her mother was suddenly living in the hospital. But she did know this: that while her mom was in the hospital, she would always be assured that her family was thinking of her, supporting her and loving her every step of her journey.

Nearly every day, Grace and her two younger sisters would hand-make cards and fill them with drawings and messages of love, which their mother would hang all over the walls of her hospital room. These cherished letters brought immeasurable peace and joy to their mom during her sickness. Sadly, when Grace was just 10 years old, her mother lost her battle with cancer.“

Image courtesy of Letters of Love

Losing my mom put the world in a completely different perspective for me,” Grace says. “I realized that you never know when someone could leave you, so you have to love the people you love with your whole heart, every day.”

Grace’s father was instrumental in helping in the healing process of his daughters. “I distinctly remember my dad constantly reminding my two little sisters, Bella and Sophie, and I that happiness is a choice, and it was now our job to turn this heartbreaking event in our life into something positive.”

When she got to high school, Grace became involved in the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and a handful of other organizations. But she never felt like she was doing enough.

“I wanted to create an opportunity for people to help beyond donating money, and one that anyone could be a part of, no matter their financial status.”

In October 2018, Grace started Letters of Love, a club at her high school in Long Lake, Minnesota, to emotionally support children battling cancer and other serious illnesses through letter-writing and craft-making.


Image courtesy of Letters of Love

Much to her surprise, more than 100 students showed up for the first club meeting. From then on, Letters of Love grew so fast that during her senior year in high school, Grace had to start a GoFundMe to help cover the cost of card-making materials.

Speaking about her nonprofit today, Grace says, “I can’t find enough words to explain how blessed I feel to have this organization. Beyond the amount of kids and families we are able to support, it allows me to feel so much closer and more connected to my mom.”

Since its inception, Letters of Love has grown to more than 25 clubs with more than 1,000 members providing emotional support to more than 60,000 patients in children’s hospitals around the world. And in the process it has become a full-time job for Grace.

“I do everything from training volunteers and club ambassadors, paying bills, designing merchandise, preparing financial predictions and overviews, applying for grants, to going through each and every card ensuring they are appropriate to send out to hospitals.”

Image courtesy of Letters of Love

In addition to running Letters of Love, Grace and her small team must also contend with the emotions inherent in their line of work.

“There have been many, many tears cried,” she says. “Working to support children who are battling cancer and other serious and sometimes chronic illnesses can absolutely be extremely difficult mentally. I feel so blessed to be an organization that focuses solely on bringing joy to these children, though. We do everything we can to simply put a smile on their face, and ensure they know that they are so loved, so strong, and so supported by people all around the world.”

Image courtesy of Letters of Love

Letters of Love has been particularly instrumental in offering emotional support to children who have been unable to see friends and family due to COVID-19. A video campaign in the summer of 2021 even saw members of the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings and the NHL’s Minnesota Wild offer short videos of hope and encouragement to affected children.

Grace is currently taking a gap year before she starts college so she can focus on growing Letters of Love as well as to work on various related projects, including the publication of a children’s book.

“The goal of the book is to teach children the immense impact that small acts of kindness can have, how to treat their peers who may be diagnosed with disabilities or illness, and how they are never too young to change the world,” she says.

Since she was 10, Grace has kept memories of her mother close to her, as a source of love and inspiration in her life and in the work she does with Letters of Love.

Image courtesy of Grace Berbig

“When I lost my mom, I felt like a section of my heart went with her, so ever since, I have been filling that piece with love and compassion towards others. Her smile and joy were infectious, and I try to mirror that in myself and touch people’s hearts as she did.”

For more information visit Letters of Love.

Please donate to Grace’s GoFundMe and help Letters of Love to expand, publish a children’s book and continue to reach more children in hospitals around the world.

Freya from Maya Higa's YouTube video.

Ever wonder what an ideal date for a lemur would be? Or a lizard’s favorite Disney princess?

Thanks to one YouTube poster with a passion for animals and an endearing sense of humor, all questions shall be answered. Well, maybe not all questions. But at the very least, you’ll have eight minutes of insanely cute footage.

In a series titled “Tiny Mic Interviews,” Maya Higa approaches little beasties with a microphone so small she has to hold it with just her thumb and forefinger. And yes, 99% of the animals try to eat it.

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Images courtesy of AFutureSuperhero and Friends and Balance Dance Project
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The day was scorching hot, but the weather wasn’t going to stop a Star Wars Stormtrooper from handing out school supplies to a long line of eager children. “You guys don’t have anything illegal back there - any droids or anything?” the Stormtrooper asks, making sure he was safe from enemies before handing over a colorful backpack to a smiling boy.

The man inside the costume is Yuri Williams, founder of AFutureSuperhero And Friends, a Los Angeles nonprofit that uplifts and inspires marginalized people with small acts of kindness.

Yuri’s organization is one of four inaugural grant winners from the Upworthy Kindness Fund, a joint initiative between Upworthy and GoFundMe that celebrates kindness and everyday actions inspired by the best of humanity. This year, the Upworthy Kindness Fund is giving $100,000 to grassroots changemakers across the world.

To apply, campaign organizers simply tell Upworthy how their kindness project is making a difference. Between now and the end of 2021, each accepted individual or organization will receive $500 towards an existing GoFundMe and a shout-out on Upworthy.

Meet the first four winners:

1: Balance Dance Project: This studio aims to bring accessible dance to all in the Sacramento, CA area. Lead fundraiser Miranda Macias says many dancers spend hours a day at Balance practicing contemporary, lyrical, hip-hop, and ballet. Balance started a GoFundMe to raise money to cover tuition for dancers from low-income communities, buy dance team uniforms, and update its facility. The $500 contribution from the Kindness Fund nudged Balance closer to its $5,000 goal.

2: Citizens of the World Mar Vista Robotics Team: In Los Angeles, middle school teacher James Pike is introducing his students to the field of robotics via a Lego-building team dedicated to solving real-world problems.

James started a GoFundMe to crowdfund supplies for his students’ team ahead of the First Lego League, a school-against-school matchup that includes robotics competitions. The team, James explained, needed help to cover half the cost of the pricey $4,000 robotics kit. Thanks to help from the Upworthy Kindness Fund and the generosity of the Citizens of the World Middle School community, the team exceeded its initial fundraising goal.

Citizens of the World Mar Vista Robotics Team video update youtu.be

3: Black Fluidity Tattoo Club: Kiara Mills and Tann Parker want to fix a big problem in the tattoo industry: there are too few Black tattoo artists. To tackle the issue, the duo founded the Black Fluidity Tattoo Club to inspire and support Black tattooers. While the Brooklyn organization is open to any Black person, Kiara and Tann specifically want to encourage dark-skinned artists to train in an affirming space among people with similar identities.

To make room for newcomers, the club recently moved into a larger studio with a third station for apprentices or guest artists. Unlike a traditional fundraiser that supports the organization exclusively, Black Fluidity Tattoo Club will distribute proceeds from GoFundMe directly to emerging Black tattoo artists who are starting their own businesses. The small grants, supported in part with a $500 contribution from the Upworthy Kindness Fund, will go towards artists’ equipment, supplies, furnishings, and other start-up costs.

4: AFutureSuperhero And Friends’ “Hope For The Holidays”: Founder Yuri Williams is fundraising for a holiday trip to spread cheer to people in need across all fifty states.

Along with collaborator Rodney Smith Jr., Yuri will be handing out gifts to children, adults, and animals dressed as a Star Wars’ Stormtrooper, Spiderman, Deadpool, and other movie or comic book characters. Starting this month, the crew will be visiting children with disabilities or serious illnesses, bringing leashes and toys to animal shelters for people taking home a new pet, and spreading blessings to unhoused people—all while in superhero costume. This will be the third time Yuri and his nonprofit have taken this journey.

AFutureSuperhero started a GoFundMe in July to cover the cost of gifts as well as travel expenses like hotels and rental cars. To help the nonprofit reach its $15,000 goal, the Upworthy Kindness Fund contributed $500 towards this good cause.

Think you qualify for the fund? Tell us how you’re bringing kindness to your community. Grants will be awarded on a rolling basis from now through the end of 2021. For questions and more information, please check out our FAQ's and the Kindness Toolkit for resources on how to start your own kindness fundraiser.

Cellist Cremaine Booker's performance of Faure's "Pavane" is as impressive as it is beautiful.

Music might be the closest thing the world has to real magic. Music has the ability to transform any atmosphere in seconds, simply with the sounds of a few notes. It can be simple—one instrument playing single notes like raindrops—or a complex symphony of melodies and harmonies, swirling and crashing like waves from dozens of instruments. Certain rhythms can make us spontaneously dance and certain chord progressions can make us cry.

Music is an art, a science, a language and a decidedly human endeavor. People have made music throughout history, in every culture on every continent. Over time, people have perfected the crafting of instruments and passed along the knowledge of how to play them, so every time we see someone playing music, we're seeing the history of humanity culminated in their craft. It's truly an amazing thing.

The pandemic threw a wrench into seeing live musicians for a good chunk of time, and even now, live performances are limited. Thankfully, we have technology that makes it easier for musicians to collaborate and perform with one another virtually—and also makes it easier for people to create "group" performances all by themselves.

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Upworthy is sharing this letter from Myra Sack on the anniversary of the passing of her daughter Havi Lev Goldstein. Loss affects everyone differently and nothing can prepare us for the loss of a young child. But as this letter beautifully demonstrates, grief is not something to be ignored or denied. We hope the honest words and feelings shared below can help you or someone you know who is processing grief of their own. The original letter begins below:


Dear Beauty,

Time is crawling to January 20th, the one-year anniversary of the day you took your final breath on my chest in our bed. We had a dance party the night before. Your posse came over. Aunts, uncles, grandparents, closest friends, and your loving nanny Tia. We sat in the warm kitchen with music on and passed you from one set of arms to another. Everyone wanted one last dance with you. We didn’t mess around with only slow songs. You danced to Havana and Danza Kuduro, too. Somehow, you mustered the energy to sway and rock with each of us, despite not having had anything to eat or drink for six days. That night, January 19th, we laughed and cried and sang and danced. And we held each other. We let our snot and our tears rest on each other’s shoulders; we didn’t wipe any of them away. We ate ice cream after dinner, as we do every night. And on this night, we rubbed a little bit of fresh mint chocolate chip against your lips. Maybe you’d taste the sweetness.

Reggaeton and country music. Blueberry pancakes and ice cream. Deep, long sobs and outbursts of real, raw laughter. Conversations about what our relationships mean to each other and why we are on this earth.


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