Jeh Johnson, the former secretary of Homeland Security, often wears a lapel pin from his great-grandfather, Richard Goodwin, who was a Pullman porter on the Pennsylvania Railroad between Washington and New York.
The small, button-shaped pin, with black edges and a gold center, is encircled with the name of the union Goodwin belonged to, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, one of the first Black labor unions. The words “Build Power” bracket a tiny sleeping car in the middle.
Goodwin appears in a black-and-white photo from the early 1940s among the officers of the union’s Washington Division. He’s one of the 6 million African Americans who left the South in the 20th century for better opportunities and altered the course of history. A significant number of them took the rails, and that connection endures for their descendants, including Johnson.
“I have worn his union pin on my lapel because it reflects an important part of our American history,” Johnson told USA TODAY.
Johnson’s great-grandfather held one of the most respected jobs a Black man could hold in the first half of the 20th century, when racism and segregation shut most Blacks out of high-paying jobs regardless of their education and talent.
It was hard work with long days away from home. Sleeping car attendants had to display complete deference to their white supervisors and passengers. They turned down beds, shined shoes, handled luggage, brought food and drinks and stood by ready to serve any passenger need.
They even had to pay for their own uniforms.
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