African-American Pullman portersThey worked long hours doing often menial labor for meager pay on America’s railroads, and paved the way for the civil rights movement in the process. Now, the unsung men known as Pullman porters are getting overdue recognition for their historical legacy.

On Saturday, in conjunction with National Train Day, a handful of surviving Pullman porters in their 80s and 90s are being honored during a ceremony at Philadelphia’s historic 30th Street Station. Similar gatherings have been held in Oakland, Chicago and Washington.

“The stories and the history we have shows the job these gentlemen did, and their dedication to top-notch service, was just incredible,” said Darlene Abubakar, Amtrak’s national advertising director. “We wanted to recognize them for that and share their stories.”

At least four men are expected to attend the Philadelphia event. Porters still living may only number in the dozens, Amtrak officials said.

Pullman porters not only were role models in their community, they also helped change race relations in America, said Lyn Hughes, founder of the A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum in Chicago.

“These men were often the only exposure white Americans had to the African-American community,” Hughes said. “They were articulate, well dressed, dignified, and they made that impression upon the general public.”

The first Pullman porters, hired after the Civil War, were former slaves. Their ranks reached 20,000 in the early part of the 20th century, making them the largest group of African-American men employed in the country. They formed the first black labor union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, in the 1920s under the stewardship of A. Philip Randolph, who also was a civil rights leader.

Percy Lee, 86, rose from fourth cook to head chef during his 38 years working the Illinois Central Railroad line. In a telephone interview from his home in Fulton, Ky., Lee said he put six children through college from his work on the railroad. He had to retire in 1979 after being injured when his train derailed.

“But I appreciate every day, every minute I worked on that train,” said Lee, who plans to attend the Philadelphia event. “It was the best train in the world — with the best food in the world. Now everything comes frozen.”

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.