Pullman Porters' Stories Tell of Hard Work, Sacrifice that Helped Shape Black America  - 2004-09-02

It's been more than three decades since the last of the Pullman porters rode America's trains, but the men who toiled in the nation's most popular sleeping cars have left their mark on everything from labor unions to the civil rights movement. Larry Tye tells their story in his new book Rising from the Rails: Pullman Porters and the Making of the Black Middle Class.

From the late 19th century to the mid-20th, everyone from middle class Americans to movie stars and presidents traveled long distances by train. Pullman porters worked nearly round the clock to care for them all. And in times when many black and white Americans still lived separate lives, porters were an important link between races and regions.

"Just by their very presence, these elegant men, clearly more learned than people in small towns, represented what life in the North might mean," says Larry Tye.

In Rising from the Rails, Larry Tye describes what Pullman porters symbolized to black America.

"They were the eyes and ears across the country for the civil rights leaders," he explains. "And in the area of popular culture they did it even more. They would take newly minted jazz albums in Chicago and New York and resell them in hamlets across the country. And they would take from these small towns the great blues traditions and bring them to Duke Ellington or Louis Armstrong or other people who rode the trains and tell them about this."

Pullman porters were also seen as people moving up in the world. Paul Robeson starred as a Pullman porter in the 1933 film version of Eugene O'Neill's play, The Emperor Jones. He returns home with extravagant boasts of seeing the U.S. president.

"And he comes right up to my car, and he says just as natural, 'Well, Brutus, you sure is much of a man, and I for one wants to compliment you on landing the job,'" said Robeson in the role.

In reality, says Larry Tye, landing a job as a Pullman porter did mean a chance for advancement.

"They picked up stock tips and they'd invest in the stock market and some of them would make a killing," he says. "They'd pick up newspapers and books that passengers left behind and they'd read them and absorb them. Mostly they picked up the lessons of how white America became so successful, the importance of education, the importance of saving their money, and they'd use those lessons in teaching their kids and their grandkids."

The job was also an opportunity to see the world while earning a steady income. Philip Henry Logan was a porter for nearly 30 years. He says he never had a better job.

"You met a lot of people. You went a lot of places," recalls Mr. Henry. "We'd go all the way up into Canada, all the way to Chicago, New York. Every day was a different day. I thought the world came to an end when the Pullman company went out of business."

But the job was also demanding. The tradition of hiring black men as Pullman porters dates back to the American Civil War era of the 1860s. George Pullman had begun designing lavish new sleeping cars for American trains.

"And who better to provide the ultimate in service than just-freed slaves? They came cheap," says Mr. Tye. "They'd work up to 400 hours a month. But most importantly, anything a passenger asked, they were there to provide it, no questions asked."

Pullman porters had to spend weeks or even months at a time away from home, performing the same tasks again and again.

"Perpetually making beds, perpetually watching kids, shining shoes, dusting jackets, cleaning bathrooms - on a general day they were working 20-21 hours a day," he adds. "They were insured by their contract a three to four hour sleeping break, but that sleep was supposed to happen in the men's smoking room behind a thin curtain on a ratty old couch. If somebody came in to have a smoke during the night, to use the facilities, have a poker game or a conversation, forget the three hours sleep."

Porters relied on tips for much of their income, and that meant putting up with virtually any demand or indignity. They especially resented being called George - a reference to company founder George Pullman that dated back to the practice of calling slaves by their masters' names. But that would all change in 1935. After a 12-year battle, a group led by labor activist A. Philip Randolph established what's become known as America's first successful black trade union.

"They got one of the most powerful and anti-union companies in America to acknowledge that these were men deserving not just of higher wages and shorter hours, but respect," Mr. Tye says. "One of the first things the union did when it was formed was insist that the Pullman company provide a name tag for every Pullman porter, which was basically saying to the passenger, my name isn't boy, my name isn't George. Call me by my name. I am a man."

Pullman porters also played a vital role during World War II. Porter Philip Henry Logan got several draft deferments for his work helping transport soldiers to camps around the United States.

"The government had taken over the Pullman company. You couldn't name a camp I haven't been in," says Mr. Logan. "I saw all kinds of soldiers, different classes, but you treated them all the same."

And as the civil rights movement gained momentum in the 1960s, Larry Tye says Pullman porters were there working behind the scenes.

"They were donating their union halls. They were donating their money, and most important, they were donating their seasoned leaders to the civil rights movement. And they played a critical and unheralded role across the country," adds Mr. Tye.

In 1969, the Pullman company ended its sleeping car service, unable to compete with the growing popularity of auto and plane travel. But Larry Tye says the legacy of the porters lived on.

"People from Thurgood Marshall, the Supreme Court justice who worked as a train porter when he was in college and whose father was a train porter; Tom Bradley, the first black mayor of a major city, Los Angeles; Willy Brown, the recently retired mayor of San Francisco; [they] were children of Pullman porters. Throughout the ranks of black scientists, politicians, jazz artists, you'll see a disproportionate number of kids of Pullman porters," he says.

As part of his research for Rising from the Rails, Larry Tye searched the country for former Pullman porters and their families. He says he wanted to hear not just the stories of glamour and excitement they've long been sharing with others, but the stories they've told less often of the hard work and sacrifice that helped shape black America.

This forum has been closed.
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against ISi
November 24, 2015 3:04 AM
The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against IS

The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Americans Sharpen Focus on Terrorism

Washington will be quieter than usual this week due to the Thanksgiving holiday, even as Americans across the nation register heightened concerns over possible terrorist threats. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports new polling data from ABC News and the Washington Post newspaper show an electorate increasingly focused on security issues after the deadly Islamic State attacks in Paris.

Video World Leaders Head to Paris for Climate Deal

Heads of state from nearly 80 countries are heading to Paris (November 30-December 11) to craft a global climate change agreement. The new accord will replace the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change that expired in 2012.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

Video Creating Physical Virtual Reality With Tiny Drones

As many computer gamers know, virtual reality is a three-dimensional picture, projected inside special googles. It can fool your brain into thinking the computer world is the real world. But If you try to touch it, it’s not there. Now Canadian researchers say it may be possible to create a physical virtual reality using tiny drones. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video New American Indian Village Takes Visitors Back in Time

There is precious little opportunity to experience what life was like in the United States before its colonization by European settlers. Now, an American Indian village built in a park outside Washington is taking visitors back in time to experience the way of life of America's indigenous people. Carol Pearson narrates this report from VOA's June Soh.

Video Even With Hometown Liberated, Yazidi Refugees Fear Return

While the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar has been liberated from Islamic State forces, it's not clear whether Yazidi residents who fled the militants will now return home. VOA’s Mahmut Bozarslan talked with Yazidis, a religious and ethnic minority, at a Turkish refugee camp in Diyarbakır. Robert Raffaele narrates his report.

Video Nairobi Tailors Make Pope Francis’ Vestments

To ensure the pope is properly attired during his visit, the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops asked the Dolly Craft Sewing Project in the Nairobi slum of Kangemi to make the pope's vestments, the garments he will wear during the various ceremonies. Jill Craig reports.

Video Cross-Border Terrorism Puts Europe’s Passport-Free Travel in Doubt

The fallout from the Islamic State terror attacks in Paris has put the future of Europe’s passport-free travel area, known as the "Schengen Zone," in doubt. Several of the perpetrators were known to intelligence agencies, but were not intercepted. Henry Ridgwell reports from London European ministers are to hold an emergency meeting Friday in Brussels to look at ways of improving security.

Video El Niño Brings Unexpected Fish From Mexico to California

Fish in an unexpected spectrum of sizes, shapes and colors are moving north, through El Niño's warm currents from Mexican waters to the Pacific Ocean off California’s coast. El Nino is the periodic warming of the eastern and central Pacific Ocean. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, this phenomenon thrills scientists and gives anglers the chance of a once-in-a-lifetime big catch. Faith Lapidus narrates.

Video Terrorism in Many Forms Continues to Plague Africa

While the world's attention is on Paris in the wake of Friday night's deadly attacks, terrorism from various sides remains a looming threat in many African countries. Nigerian cities have been targeted this week by attacks many believe were staged by the violent Islamist group Boko Haram. In addition, residents in many regions are forced to flee their homes as they are terrorized by armed militias. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Study: Underage Marriage Rate Higher for Females in Pakistan

While attitudes about the societal role of females in Pakistan are evolving, research by child advocacy group Plan International suggests that underage marriage of girls remains a particularly big issue in the country. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports how such marriages leads to further social problems.

VOA Blogs