LOS ANGELES -- When Lee Wesley Gibson began his new job as a coach attendant with Union Pacific Railroad in 1936, the country was in the grips of the Great Depression.
Millions of Americans were out of work. Like so many others around the country, Gibson moved from Texas to California in search of new opportunities. Within a year he landed a job with the railroad in his new hometown, Los Angeles.
It was the beginning of a 38-year journey, during which he traveled the country and ultimately landed a much-coveted job as a Pullman porter, one of the uniformed railway men who served first-class passengers traveling in luxurious sleeping cars.
"I was very happy," Gibson said. "It helped me feed my family ... take care of them."
Like thousands of other African-Americans of his era, Gibson had found a job that provided steady work and helped elevate his family's socioeconomic status. He was able to buy a car and a brand-new home.
"For African-Americans, it was a middle-class job," said Lyn Hughes, founder of the A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum in Chicago, which celebrates the contribution of African Americans to the nation's labor history. "It represented a sort of freedom, flexibility and education all in one bundle."
The Pullman Palace Car Co. was founded by George Pullman in 1867 and was most famous for the development of the railroad sleeping car, which featured plush upholstery, marble-topped wash basins and lavishly decorated interiors. In the beginning, the company hired only African-American attendants.
In 1925, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters became the country's first all-black labor union and helped pave the way for equal employment benefits; it later played a role in the civil rights movement.
Today, at 100, Gibson is the oldest surviving Pullman porter, according to records kept by the Randolph museum. There are fewer than 50 of the railroad men surviving.
"It was hard," Gibson said of his work. "But it was fun."
On May 21, the centenarian celebrated his birthday with more than 200 of his friends and family, which includes three daughters, six grandchildren, 18 great-grandchildren, 13 great-great-grandchildren and one great-great-great-grandchild.
President Obama, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, the Union Pacific Black Employees Network and the USA Retirement Railway Board all sent cards, certificates of recognition or gifts.
Born in Keatchie, La., Gibson was the second of two children raised by a single mother. The family later moved to Marshall, Texas. When Gibson graduated from high school, he wanted to enroll in tailoring school, but the family couldn't afford it.
Instead, he worked at odd jobs and started a cleaning and pressing service, before moving to Los Angeles in 1935 in search of a better life. He lived with a friend, earning his keep making sandwiches at a tavern and doing cleaning for a food production company.
Then one day in 1936, a deacon at his church who worked for the Union Pacific Railroad as a coach attendant asked Gibson's wife, Beatrice, if her husband would be interested in a job with the railroad. Gibson jumped at the opportunity.
"He took me to the superintendent," Gibson said, "and they hired me on the spot."
In the late 1960s, Gibson graduated to the position of Pullman porter. His first trip in the role was to Promontory, Utah -- famous for the site where the country's first Transcontinental Railroad was officially completed in 1869.
Soon he was rubbing shoulders with celebrities such as composer, pianist and big band leader Duke Ellington, jazz singer Cab Calloway, and jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong, who Gibson recalled was always friendly and willing to talk.
"He played Vegas and would catch my train from Vegas many times," Gibson said. "He was quite interesting."
Being a Pullman porter "was desirous by most African-Americans," said Hughes, who has written a book on the subject. "But not everyone could do that job. You had to be a certain type of person. You had to have natural elegance, stature ... and the ability to interact with people at all levels."
Porters sometimes also had to endure humiliation and racism as well as the caprice of some passengers and white railway employees. The black union would help to protect workers from some of these abuses.
Gibson says he was always treated with respect.
Retired since 1974
The Pullman Co. ended operation of sleeping cars in 1968, according to Aaron Hunt, a spokesman for Union Pacific. The various railroads then took over the function, and Pullman porters were transferred to such companies as Union Pacific and later Amtrak.
Gibson, who retired in 1974, joked that the long periods away from home helped to strengthen his marriage.
"It kept the wife from getting tired of me," he said.
Despite his age, Gibson remains fit and alert. He takes no medication, doesn't wear glasses and still likes to drive.
His wife died in 2004, after 76 years of marriage. But he has a "lady-friend," Evelyn Dotson, 82, and three doting daughters, Gloria Gibson, 65; Barbara Leverette, 76; and Gwendolyn Reed, 78. His firstborn, a son, died in 1958 of Hodgkins disease.
His daughters take turns looking after Gibson, preparing meals, taking him out to dine, making sure he has new clothes.
"He's the backbone of the family," Reed said. "At 78 years old, I can holler 'daddy' louder than anyone in the world, and he will always say, 'What do you need?' -- at 100. He's a role model for all the young men in our family ... for all the men in the neighborhood."