Photo by Tim Wildsmith on Unsplash

Abraham, Martin, and Rosa: Connected by rail

February 16, 2023
The song “Abraham, Martin, and John” was written by Dick Holler in 1968 in tribute to four assassinated Americans, giants and icons of social change: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy, and Robert F. Kennedy. Robert is not in the title but appears in the song’s conclusion:

Anybody here seen my old friend Abraham?
Can you tell me where he’s gone?
He freed a lot of people but it seems the good they die young
You know I just looked around and he’s gone
Anybody here seen my old friend John?
Can you tell me where he’s gone?
He freed a lot of people but it seems the good they die young
I just looked around and he’s gone
Anybody here seen my old friend Martin?
Can you tell me where he’s gone?
He freed a lot of people but it seems the good they die young
I just looked around and he’s gone
Didn’t you love the things that they stood for?
Didn’t they try to find some good for you and me?
And we’ll be free
Some day soon, it’s gonna be one day
Anybody here seen my old friend Bobby?
Can you tell me where he’s gone?
I thought I saw him walkin’ up over the hill
With Abraham, Martin, and John

The people of this song were connected in that they were assassinated. Another kind of link connects Abraham and Martin along with Rosa Parks: the rails. I discovered this connection when I visited the former summer home of Abraham’s son Robert Todd Lincoln, named Hildene, set quietly in the mountains of Manchester, Vermont. Hildene’s website tells of Lincoln’s home: “The Lincolns built Hildene as a summer home at the turn of the 20th century. Robert was the only child of Mary Todd Lincoln and Abraham Lincoln to survive to maturity. He first visited Manchester as a young man in the summer of 1864 when he came to the Equinox Hotel to meet up with his mother and his brother Tad. Some forty years later he returned to purchase 392 acres of land to build what he would call his ancestral home. At the time, Robert was president of the Pullman Company—the largest manufacturing corporation in the country.” A restored 1903 Pullman car, the Sunbeam, is exhibited on display on the estate’s campus.

I visited at a time when there was only one other couple on the grounds, in addition to the guides, so I had plenty of time to look around. It was awesome to see personal items belonging to President Lincoln, like his stovetop hat, signed documents, and the wall mirror which historians suspect was the last image of himself that President Lincoln saw before he headed out to Ford’s Theater. In son Robert’s office, which we were told contains ninety percent of original items, sat the desk and chair where he conducted his business as President of the Pullman company. No one else was around and I didn’t see signs that said you couldn’t, so for a microsecond I reached down and touched the back of Robert’s chair. It felt like an electric connection with only one degree of separation from my finger to Abraham Lincoln’s fingers. (I promise I won’t touch anything else there again).

Then we were off to visit the Sunbeam Pullman rail car. The guide called it yesterday’s luxury jet, with elegant luxurious appointments for lounging, sleeping, and eating. For the passengers. For the black porters, accommodations were, well, at least better than what they experienced as former slaves. The Sunbeam contained a tiny room where porters could sleep when not working around the clock and an equally tiny kitchen where they prepared the gourmet meals for the train’s guests. 

When I visited Abraham Lincoln’s son Robert Todd Lincoln’s summer home, I learned that Robert, as president of the Pullman Company, exploited the people whom his father freed. Yet black Pullman porters rose up to extend civil rights and social justice. Pullman porter E.D. Nixon paid Rosa Parks’ bail in Montgomery, Alabama, and asked a young Martin Luther King, Jr. to lead a bus boycott there. And Pullman porter A. Philip Randolph called for the 1963 March on Washington which culminated in King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
A sign by the Porter’s Quarters noted: “The two Porters would share this space to care for the needs of the guests and occasionally take a brief rest from their duties. On average the Porters worked 20 or more hours a day, a total of over 100 hours of work a week.” Porters’ wages were low, but with tips they made a better living than most blacks could hope to achieve. Under George Pullman, for whom the company is named, being a porter could even lead to something of a middle-class lifestyle. An NPR segment on the Pullman porters noted that “Pullman intentionally hired black men for the job, which was exhausting and sometimes demeaning, but also one of the best available to African-American men.” Then came Abe’s boy, formerly the company’s attorney, who was “elevated to the thankless task of rescuing the Pullman Company from insolvency after Pullman’s death. He performed this task with ruthless efficiency, making life difficult for Pullman porters and other passenger car personnel by inaugurating a wage system heavily dependent on tips.”

Across from the Sunbeam Pullman railroad car is a mural displaying historical photos, documents, and newspaper clippings about porters. One quote read “We are born in a Pullman house, fed from Pullman shops, taught at the Pullman school, catechized in the Pullman church, and when we die, we shall go to the Pullman Hell.” Another, referring to Robert Todd Lincoln, headlined “And His Father Set the Negro Free!” with a cartoon of a big white man named the Pullman Company pointing to a huge pile of millions of dollars in dividends while another man begrudges the porter his income. The guide then explained that it was the porters who were prime movers for the rail’s connection to Abraham, Martin, and Rosa.

As a 2019 feature by Chicago-area PBS station WTTW reports, “A Pullman porter named E. D. Nixon paid Rosa Parks’ bail in Montgomery, Alabama and asked a young Martin Luther King, Jr. to lead a bus boycott there. Not only did the porters improve their own lives and working conditions through tenacious organizing; they also laid groundwork for the civil rights movement.” 

It was a Pullman porter named A. Philip Randolph, founder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, who called for a 1963 March on Washington which culminated in Martin Luther King, Jr. delivering his memorable “I Have a Dream” speech. 

Anybody here seen my old friends Abraham, Martin, and Rosa… connected by rail, for it was because Abraham’s son Robert exploited black porters, and because a porter engaged Martin to hold a March on Washington, and because a porter paid Rosa’s bail, that they are connected by rail.

I confess a sadness, disappointment, and surprise to learn that the former owner of Hildene, son of one of my greatest heroes, did little to carry on his dad’s legacy. Robert Todd Lincoln most certainly would have read his father’s Emancipation Proclamation. Perhaps Robert would have known of his father’s struggle with the faith of his parents, a rigid Baptist religion that Abraham could not own but which stirred in his soul, caused him to carry a Bible with him, quote verses often, and lead him to sense that God had a purpose specifically for him. Abraham Lincoln’s faith evolved to a growing maturity, according to historian Samuel Wheeler: “He is searching for God’s purpose. He’s redefining his relationship with his maker, and he’s trying to figure out what is God’s purpose in this war.  He believed that God was using him to end American slavery.”

Who could have ever guessed that Abraham’s beloved son would further oppress the black people whom his father freed, and yet, it is by that son’s company that black porters rose up to extend social justice and civil rights in magnificent leaps. Those porters would have known Robert’s dad’s Emancipation Proclamation: “And upon this act, sincerely believed to be an act of justice, warranted by the Constitution, upon military necessity, I invoke the considerate judgment of mankind, and the gracious favor of Almighty God.” In some crazy kind of way, I feel like I touched those hallowed words when I touched Robert’s chair.

Rev. John Zehring has served United Church of Christ congregations for 22 years as a pastor in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Maine. He is the author of more than 30 books and e-books. His most recent book from Judson Press is “Get Your Church Ready to Grow: A Guide to Building Attendance and Participation.”

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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