Film ‘Conversations on Freedom’ to premiere at Albany Institute

From left, Amelia Paul, Donald Hyman and Kim Wafer filming “Conversations on Freedom,” which will be shown at the Albany Institute of History & Art.
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From left, Amelia Paul, Donald Hyman and Kim Wafer filming “Conversations on Freedom,” which will be shown at the Albany Institute of History & Art.

The road to establishing the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, which was the first African American labor union to be recognized by the American Federation of Labor, was in no way easy.

That winding journey, and the men and women who assisted on it, will be explored on Saturday at the Albany Institute of History & Art with the premiere of “Conversations on Freedom,” a film written by Albany resident Donald Hyman. He’s been researching and workshopping the theatrical production for the last three years, reading as many historical documents and books about the Pullman porters as he could.

The Pullman Company was founded by George Pullman during the boom of railroads in the United States, starting in the mid-to-late 19th century. The company offered luxury traveling experiences, with sleeper cars that were, as Hyman describes them, “a hotel on wheels.” Some 100,000 people were traveling overnight on Pullman company cars during its peak, according to Hyman.

The porters on those cars were almost exclusively Black.

“In the 1920s alone, there were over 20,000 African American men and women who worked as Pullman porters on those trains,” Hyman said.

Working conditions were horrendous. Many had to work upwards of 20 hours a day and they weren’t provided with adequate sleeping accommodations. Employees weren’t referred to by their own names but were instead called “George” after the company’s founder. Those who tried to unionize in the early 1920s were often fired or punished as the Pullman Company spied on its employees.

Women like Rosina Corrothers Tucker and Helena Wilson, whose husbands were Pullman porters, came to play a key part in bringing the porters together.

“In the early years, women were instrumental in these organizing efforts,” said Kim Wafter, who plays Tucker in “Conversations on Freedom.” “The Pullman company would monitor employees’ activities and punish those who supported the union. Tucker was a vital part in making sure that union information was distributed and members were well informed about union business without the Pullman Company’s knowledge.”

In 1925, with the help of activist A. Philip Randolph, along with Tucker and Wilson, the porters were able to form the first African American labor union recognized by the American Federation of Labor.

In “Conversations on Freedom,” Hyman plays Randolph and Amelia Paul takes on the role of Wilson. The performance was recorded at the Albany Institute of History & Art late last year by Open Stage Media. The film features period photos and images of historical letters, as well as monologues by each of the three actors.

For Paul, the production feels personal.

“I’ve had the luxury of having a ‘good job’ AKA, a job with (unionized) benefits. I also knew that my grand uncle was a Pullman porter,” Paul said.

“Through this project, I had the opportunity to look further into what actually got me here. I learned how Sister Helena Wilson was influential in the start of collective bargaining and also how her efforts impacted my life, and my work history. She played a huge role in us not only having benefits on a job, but also having civil rights in the workplace through what ended up in the anti-discrimination laws that are in place, widely used, and still needed even today,” Paul said.

During her lifetime, Wilson created the Colored Women’s Economic Council and was president of the Ladies Auxiliary of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.

Tucker continued to fight for civil rights and eventually became the president of the Women’s Economic Councils (now called the International Ladies Auxiliary Order).

“It was a great honor to tell this story. It was one that I was not familiar with but learned how it changed the lives for the better for Black employees,” Wafer said. “Through these efforts, salaries for workers were increased, a grievance policy was instituted and labor conditions improved.”

Saturday’s showing of the film, which is about 15 minutes, will also include poetry by Penny Meacham and a discussion with the actors.

“We rounded it off by talking about our grandparents because most of us are descendants from the south or from the Caribbean and we all had uncles or aunts, or grandparents that worked in service of blue-collar services, either as maids or housekeepers, or cooks, or janitors,” Hyman said.

Debora Brown-Johnson, president of the NAACP’s Albany branch, will also interview Hyman about the making of the film.

“Conversations on Freedom”

WHEN: 2 p.m. Saturday
WHERE: Albany Institute of History & Arts and live-streamed
TICKETS: $10 for nonmuseum members including admission and $10 suggested donation for members. Registration is required.
MORE INFO: albanyinstitute.org
NOTE: For those interested but unable to attend Saturday’s event, OSM will be airing the production throughout the month.

Categories: Entertainment, Life and Arts

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