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THE OTHER SIDE OF THE TRACKS

part 2 of 2 The elder Cousins was the epitome of self-discipline. He'd purchased his first home in Atchison, Kansas, when he was seventeen years old and had it paid off by the time he was eighteen. Then he moved to Denver to work for the Pullman Company, selling the...
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The elder Cousins was the epitome of self-discipline. He'd purchased his first home in Atchison, Kansas, when he was seventeen years old and had it paid off by the time he was eighteen. Then he moved to Denver to work for the Pullman Company, selling the house in Kansas and buying a new place at 4229 North Broadway. He and his wife, Alta, ultimately raised six children--and none of them ever lived in a rented house or apartment. As the family grew, Cousins just rented out the old houses and bought bigger ones, including the house at 2448 Lafayette, where his eldest son and namesake was born.

Cousins put his money into other property, too. In 1931 he built a place called The Arcade, home to a beauty shop, a barber shop, a shoeshine stand and a drugstore boasting the most modern soda fountain in Colorado at the time. When the Depression hit, he struggled to hold on to his investments--sometimes paying just the interest on his loans and not the principle.

People called the family "property poor"--meaning all their assets were wrapped up in buildings and land. But the Cousins family would laugh it off. "We're not poor; we just don't have any money."

Self-discipline. The old man preached it and practiced it. If there was one vice he truly loved, it was smoking. Porters were forbidden to smoke on the cars, but occasionally he'd sneak one. One day he got caught and was suspended without pay for two trips. Recognizing the threat his vice represented to his dreams, he stopped smoking altogether before returning to work.

The elder Cousins passed his good habits on to his children, particularly Charlie, who was born after four sisters and before his younger brother. "You know, son," the old man would say, "save your money so that when opportunity comes along, you'll be ready to take advantage...If you want something bad enough, do what it takes to reach your goal."

Young Charlie took those lessons to heart. He entered the savings program at Whittier Elementary, picking dandelions, catching worms to sell to local fisherman--whatever it took to get the money tucked away and that gold star by his name.

From the time he was a little boy, Charlie was in love with the railroads. His father would take him down to Union Station a few hours before each trip was scheduled to leave. The boy would watch while his father cleaned the car and made the beds according to the passenger lists. When he finished, he'd take his son to the streetcar and send him home.

Charlie would wait impatiently for his father to return several days later, kept company by the family Airedale. The dog was uncanny. The streetcar could come and go a hundred times and the dog wouldn't move, then suddenly he'd be off. Charlie would hear the dog barking from a block away before his father would appear with the dog leaping around him.

For all the advantages work as a Pullman porter gave him, the elder Cousins knew the railroads didn't deal fairly with black workers. The bad treatment took a variety of forms, from receiving lower pay than whites earned for doing less work to having to make the beds for stewards and conductors--while the black men slept on bunks riveted into dark and dusty baggage cars.

But he put up with it and ignored the racist insults from white railroad men and passengers, because he had a vision and needed his job to accomplish it. If Charlie wanted to work the railroads, his father said he would have to learn not to lose his cool or he'd lose his job.

But that didn't mean things wouldn't someday change, he told his son. For that reason, he took Charlie to hear Randolph. The union organizer had a simple message: "There will be sacrifices...Some of you will lose your jobs...in the fight for equality." Long before the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. came along, Randolph held out the hope of a better day, if men would just unite as brothers.

While still in school, Charlie started pestering Ed Hershey, the head of the dining-car waiters' department in Denver, for a job. "I'll work for free just to learn," the boy said. But each time Hershey refused him, and Charlie would return home, dejected.

His father wouldn't let him wallow in self-pity. "Persistence," he'd say, "wins out. Keep trying."

In January 1936, with the temperature at ten below, Charlie got on his bicycle and rode to Union Station to again ask for a job. Hershey watched as the boy hopped about trying to warm up. Finally, he said, "Anybody who would come out in this weather to get a job deserves a chance."

He started Charlie working weekends on what were called "jitney" cars, short-hop trains such as the one that ran from Denver to North Platte, Nebraska. The railroad men on board, many of whom had known Charlie all his life, showed him the ropes. He crossed the Plains learning to polish silverware, set tables just so and pick the tops off of strawberries.

He also learned about the abuse his father had warned him of. One night during a stop in Clinton, Iowa, he was standing on the platform waiting to help passengers board. All around him people were pointing to the lead story in the newspaper: Amelia Earhart had disappeared on the last leg of her attempt to fly around the world. Everyone was upset, but one man went so far as to knock Charlie back into the train and swear at him.

"You ought to kick his ass," said one of Charlie's fellow waiters.
Charlie thought about it but then recalled his father's admonitions. If he took a swing at the passenger, said anything at all, he'd be fired and left in Clinton. Instead, he picked himself up and began loading his charges.

Charlie graduated from Manual High School that spring and kept working the little runs until Hershey called him in one day. "Charles," he said, "you need to have your dad come in and sign a minor's release if you're going to work for this railroad." The boy was thrilled, especially after Hershey told him that he had a special job in mind for him.

The Union Pacific was about to unveil the pride of its line: the streamlined, diesel-powered City of Denver, which would take over the run between the city and Chicago. On board would be a new sort of railroad employee, Hershey explained, a porter/ waiter. The train would keep its dining cars with their fancy, seven-course meals, but the kitchen would also serve up cheaper meals that would be carried to coach passengers. The porter/waiter assigned to a coach car would be responsible for all the things a porter normally did--such as keeping the coach and its bathrooms clean--as well as serving the meal. The best part was that the job would entail a pay raise: from $65 a month for 240 hours' work to $85 a month.

On June 18, 1936, a bottle of champagne was broken over the snub nose of the new train and, with bands playing and newspaper photographers clicking away, it began to pull out of Union Station.

Eighteen-year-old Charlie, wearing a new, starched white uniform, stood looking out the window to where he knew his father's car was being prepared for its departure in a few hours. Standing beside the Pullman was his father, beaming with pride, waving.

It was the start of a new tradition in the Cousins family--the two men waving across the tracks as one or the other departed.

From the start of his railroad career, Charlie Cousins was a member of the Protective Order of Dining-Car Waiters and Porters. Although he only worked full-time for the railroad from 1936 to September 1937, working summers after that, he saw the progress the union was making.

At the time, the Denver district office was run by George Halsey. Whenever there were union matters to discuss, Charlie knew he could find Halsey at the union club on Welton. Charlie was still too young to drink on the bar side, but he'd always remember the dedication of those in the union hall. Although the railroads dealt with the union reluctantly, salaries were climbing and so were benefits. And through the work of men like Halsey, working conditions improved--black workers no longer had to wait on the white railroad employees, and the railroads attached another sleeping car for the blacks.

As the railroad men prospered, so did Five Points. Through the Forties and well into the Fifties, Welton Street had a reputation for its dazzling nightlife. Those were the days when the Rossonian Hotel boasted big-name jazz--from Duke Ellington and Count Basie to Ella Fitzgerald. The Ex-Serviceman's Club competed with its own big names--like Billie Holiday--and, for those in the know, a lively poker game in the back.

Although blacks weren't welcome in white nightclubs, even those featuring black entertainers, whites flocked to Five Points. Beat writer Jack Kerouac wrote in his semiautobiographical On the Road of a night carousing and listening to music in Five Points that ended with him walking away "wishing I was a Negro."

Across the street from the Rossonian and next door to the Ex-Serviceman's Club was a door with the painted sign: "Fraternal Club of Dining-Car Waiters and Porters. Members only!" The club upstairs didn't have much in the way of refinements--just an old jukebox and a tiny bar--but a stop there was a must for locals.

This was where railroad men could find old friends. On a bulletin board in the back, they could post notes asking about a former comrade's whereabouts or make arrangements to meet somewhere along the line.

"And if they hadn't seen someone in a while," says Willia Gomez, "they'd send someone to find him."

"We looked after our own," Freddie agrees.
Freddie Gomez worked for 37 years before the railroad pensioned him off in 1962. A few years later the Union Pacific made him an unprecedented offer: It asked him to be a steward. No black man had ever been a steward, and the union had been fighting for years for such a breakthrough. Freddie took the job.

It was a short-lived triumph. By the end of the decade the railroads were out of the passenger-train business. The very thing that had made them successful was now their ruin: speed. Airplanes could get people to their destinations faster.

Sitting on his bed, the ventilator hissing in the background, the old man proudly shows off the UP card with "Freddie Gomez, steward" embossed on it. "I was on the City of Denver when it made its final run in 1971," he says quietly. "It was enough to make you cry."

As passenger trains declined, so did union membership. Freddie pulls out a Fraternal Club membership list from 1972. Question marks have been hand-printed alongside many of the names, and many others simply bear the sad notation "Deceased." Another sheet of paper represents the club's balance sheet at the end of 1973; there was $49.70 in the till.

And as the railroad men disappeared, so did Five Points' cohesiveness as a black community. Part of the reason for the change was that the civil-rights movement had opened opportunities in other parts of town; blacks began moving into formerly all-white neighborhoods and out of the city to the suburbs. But the loss of the stabilizing influence of the railroad families also contributed to the decline of the area.

They sold their houses, and renters moved in. The Rossonian gave up on its jazz lounge in the Sixties, and other longtime businesses began folding. Five Points gained a new reputation for crime and drugs.

In January 1978 Freddie got a call he'd half expected but dreaded nonetheless. It was the bar manager. The club was heavily in debt with unpaid bills and taxes; unless something was done, it would have to shut down in ten days.

Freddie couldn't stand the thought of allowing the club to close. There was too much history tied up in that building, even if no one seemed to care about it anymore. He got on the telephone and called three other members, each of whom agreed to contribute $1,000 to the cause. The next morning he collected the money and paid the taxes and bills. There was almost nothing left over.

Freddie and Stan Jones took over managing the club, and for a time it seemed to find new life. It was still a place where a man could get a couple of bucks or a little credit if he needed it; Freddie simply penciled the man's name on a card he carried in his pocket.

"The young guys knew they could talk to the older guys and get advice or help," says Willia, who started going to the club because "you could go there alone and be treated like a lady." That's where she met Freddie; they were married in 1981.

"People would still come from other parts of the country and know that they had to at least visit. If you went out, it wasn't a night until you dropped by for a drink," she adds.

"It was home."
Turning to Freddie, she shouts, "TELL HIM ABOUT VIRGIL."
"Tell him what?" Freddie asks.
"VIRGIL," she yells even louder. "TELL HIM ABOUT VIRGIL."

Virgil was a middle-aged white man who hung around Five Points taking odd jobs. He was a bit on the slow side and didn't have any family to look after him. Freddie gave him a job at the club as a janitor. It paid only $7 a day, but Virgil figured he had excellent fringe benefits.

"He was always getting into my beer," Freddie laughs. "He had a little work room, and I'd go back there and find his empty bottles. But he wouldn't get drunk, and he worked hard. It was like looking after a baby, but I thought he was a wonderful person."

When Virgil died, the club paid for his burial so that he wouldn't be put to rest in a pauper's grave.

"There," says Willia triumphantly. "That's what you need to say about those guys. That was the kind of place the club was."

In 1971 Amtrak revived passenger trains. Some of the routes even retained their glamorous old names, such as the California Zephyr. But the service was a shadow of what it had been.

Gone were the elaborate menus and wine lists. Gone were the cloth napkins and delicate china. But the most noticeable absence was that of the men who'd made serving dinner an art form.

Amtrak meals, such as they were, came in boxes. "You even had to fetch your own water," recalls Stan Dillard, who rode Amtrak a few years back just to see how things had changed.

"Think of the old days on a dining car as the Brown Palace on wheels," says Kenton Forrest, a local train buff and author of Denver's Railroads. "When Amtrak first took over, food was more like McDonald's on wheels."

Since then, rail travel has experienced a resurgence in popularity and service has improved somewhat. "I'd say now it's more like a Denny's on wheels," he laughs.

But service is not all that has been lost. While some modern-day African-American academics deride the black railroad men as Uncle Tom-ing servants, Leon Forrest says that these scholars have overlooked the attributes the older men impressed upon younger members of the community: self-discipline and self-respect in the face of adversity.

"For all they had to put up with, it was the kind of job that gave an immediate sense of dignity and a viable livelihood," he says. "I think a lot of what has happened to young black men, those who wind up in gangs or in prison, can be traced to the loss of traditional jobs like those on the railroads."

People owe the railroad men a debt, Forrest adds. They were the heart of traditional black communities and the vanguard of the civil-rights movement. In 1941, for example, A. Philip Randolph called for a massive march on Washington, D.C., to protest discrimination against blacks by the defense industry. It worked, and President Roosevelt personally intervened; the tactic would later be adopted by, and credited to, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.

Like many of the early black union leaders and railroad men, Randolph has been largely forgotten. "I don't know where we'd be as a people without them," Forrest says. "It is unfortunate that not enough of our writers and poets have taken the time to celebrate their contributions."

Charlie Cousins answers the door of his home across the street from City Park golf course--Hole 3, to be exact.

"Come in, make yourself at home. I got some business to attend to," he says, and then he's off with a cordless telephone held against the silver-white hair that is swept back from his chestnut face. His deep voice rumbles from the rear of the house--angry but controlled.

A few minutes later, the telephone clutched in his hand like a club and his light-blue eyes still bright from the battle, he walks back into the living room and plops down on a chair. "It's been a tough week," he says. "I just had to evict someone. Didn't want to, but it's getting so you can't trust anybody."

He recounts the tribulations of recent days: He gave a young man $1,400 to begin fixing the roof on one of his properties, and the young man disappeared; another tenant was allowed to run up $1,600 in back rent that Cousins no longer expects to see.

It isn't the money, although Lord knows he can be hard-nosed. It's constantly giving young people an opportunity to make something of themselves, only to have his faith thrown back in his face. "I get so hurt," he says, shaking his head.

He blames the problem on a lack of role models, especially parents. Charlie's been married 47 years to Dorothy, a community activist in her own right. Their daughter, a graduate of the medical school at Johns Hopkins, is now a pediatrician in Denver.

All of Charlie Cousins's success, which is considerable, he attributes to his own parents. His mother, Alta Cousins, was well-known for her charity. His dad worked on the road for 42 years, all the time investing his money in property and other ventures. Charles L. Cousins died a wealthy man.

Although Charlie did not follow in his tracks for long, quitting the railroads permanently in 1940 to work for Remington Arms and an additional $15 a month, he learned his father's lessons well. He deposited his first fifteen paychecks from the railroad directly into the bank without removing a cent for personal use.

That was the modest start of what he has cultivated into a sizeable business empire. But like his father, Charlie is more than a businessman. He's been lauded for his minority hiring practices and has been involved in just about every civic organization there is. Dozens of plaques and other mementos honor his contributions, among them the 1981 Frederick Douglass Award from the Esquire Club as Denver's leading citizen. Last year, as part of its centennial celebration, Manual High School named him "Manualite" of the century for his "extraordinary contributions." He counts among his past friends Olympic sprinter Jesse Owens and boxer Joe Louis.

But the hero he places above all the rest is Pullman porter Charles L. Cousins.

Thinking about his father softens his voice and eyes. "I get sentimental talking about the railroads," Charlie says, "mostly because I link them so closely to him."

He bounces up from the chair, still spry, and heads downstairs, where he pulls out a picture of the City of Denver. "My dad was so proud of me," he says of that day in 1936 when they waved to each other across the tracks.

Although he is one of the wealthier and most influential members of the black community, he speaks of little-known railroad union men like Freddie Gomez and George Halsey, as well as national figures like A. Philip Randolph, with respect and admiration. "I've often wondered if anybody is doing something about preserving some of the historical documents from the club," he says.

After all, the influence of the railroads on the black community was profound, especially in the days before the civil-rights movement. "I remember black doctors and lawyers who would come from places like St. Louis and even farther east to work on the railroad out of Denver during the summer," he says. "Blacks couldn't afford to pay them for their services, so they'd get on with the railroads so they could afford to go back in the fall."

Still, the loss of the railroad jobs and the impact of that loss on Five Points is something he accepts in the name of progress. "There were other opportunities, and integration let people like me move where we wanted," he says. "It's like Randolph said--there had to be sacrifices to achieve equality."

It's Juneteenth, which black Americans celebrate as the day the last of the slaves, those in Texas, heard--albeit two years late--that Abraham Lincoln had set them free. In Five Points, the streets are alive as the black community of Denver returns to its heart.

Up the stairs in the Fraternal Club, bar manager Kurlee Henderson keeps an eye on the door, "watching out for riffraff."

The place is hopping, and the tables are filled. Gold tinsel hangs from every corner, the remnants of the First Annual Hoedown party thrown a couple of weeks before to get some new blood into the club.

Stan Dillard appreciates the optimism that a "First Annual" anything implies. A Second Annual. Third Annual. And so on. "That's some of the younger people trying to keep things going," he says.

"Somebody is always seeing better times ahead," he adds. "But there'd have to be a drastic change in the element on the street for folks to feel comfortable coming here, especially at night...To be honest, I hope we're not here for another year. It's just too dangerous.

"In another five years, there probably won't be any of us older guys left, anyway."

Terry Smith, who was raised a few blocks away, looks around as if she has landed on the set of an old movie. "Mama used to come here," she says. "This was her favorite place. Of course, I was just a little girl, so I couldn't go in, but everybody from the neighborhood would be in here.

"I'd look in the door and couldn't wait until I could come, too...All of Five Points would be jumpin'. There was lots of jazz and hundreds of people on the streets. It's not like that anymore. Probably won't be ever again.

"But I still like to come here. Nobody hassles anybody else, and the men are gentlemen. I hope it stays open."

Terry peers around the room as though she expects the wrecking ball to arrive tomorrow. Her gaze stops at a small television high on a shelf in a corner of the room, above the painting of a semi-nude woman and a poster depicting the kings of Africa.

"You know," she laughs, "that television's been up there ever since I started coming here, but I can't remember it ever being on. I'll bet it doesn't even work."

Once again, Stan is keeping a close eye on the door. As it opens, a woman at the bar turns and then breaks into song--a song from another era. "Hail, hail, the gang's all here," she begins, and is quickly joined by her companions.

Virginia Gus walks into the club like she owns the place, smiles at the men and sits at the corner table.

She first walked into the club in 1958. "It was really special," she says, closing her eyes and remembering. "There were live bands at all the clubs. The streets were crowded. We danced all night.

"We'd be down here jumping from one place to the other, sometimes it seemed from Friday night until Sunday morning. We'd come up here for a breather, then, after hours, we'd go across the street to the Chinese restaurant."

Today the storefront that housed the Chinese restaurant is occupied by Ethel's House of Soul, doing a good business now that the light-rail construction is complete. And there are other signs that Five Points is experiencing a revival: All the new streetscaping along Welton has been completed and the Rossonian has been renovated, with the Denver Housing Authority occupying the upstairs and the owners looking for someone to bring back the nightclub down below.

Still, it will have to go a long way to match the glamour of Five Points in its heyday. "That was when you wore your high heels, best stockings and jewelry," Virginia remembers. "But of all the places you'd go, the railroad guys were the classiest."

Charles, "just Charles," walks up and tips his straw fedora to Virginia before sitting down. He recalls sneaking up the stairs to order a drink back in 1955, when he was nineteen, only to be told, "Git on outta here."

"It was a private club, so you had to belong or know somebody," he says. "Everybody wanted in. In those days, the streets were safe. There was a policeman on the corner, and he was always a badass who wouldn't take nothing off nobody, though he'd leave you alone if you behaved. But if somebody got drunk, he'd get 'em off the street real fast.

"And in this place," he adds, "women were treated with respect. Even today you don't have to worry about fights. Maybe somebody has one too many and gets loud, but that's about it.

"It's still a place where the old-timers can get together to play dominos, tell lies and get away from their old ladies...at least until their wives come in and haul them outta here."

Behind the bar, Debbie Owens reflects that "there's a lot of history in here tonight." But she's not going to be part of it for much longer.

Born and raised in Five Points, she's leaving soon, after six months bartending at the club, to go to flight attendant school. She's going to work for the airlines, of all things.

John Henry must be whirling in his grave.
end of part 2

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