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.