Longform

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 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."

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Steve Jackson