Pullman porters were men hired to work on the railroads as porters on sleeping cars. Starting shortly after the American Civil War, George Pullman sought out former slaves to work on his sleeper cars. Pullman porters served American railroads for 100 years from the late 1860s until late in the 20th Century.
Pullman porters, who were largely black, are widely credited with contributing to the development of the black middle class in America.
Under the leadership of A. Philip Randolph, Pullman porters formed the first all-black union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Formation of the union, in 1925, was instrumental in the advancement of the civil rights movement.
Prior to the 1860s the concept of sleeping cars on railroads had not been widely developed. George Pullman pioneered sleeping accommodations on trains and by the late 1860s he was hiring only African-Americans to serve as porters. After the Civil War ended in 1865 Pullman knew that there was a large pool of former slaves who would be looking for work, and he also had a very clear racial conception. He was aware that most Americans, unlike the wealthy, didn’t have personal servants in their homes. Pullman knew that the wealthy were accustomed to being served by a liveried waiter or butler, but to staff the Pullman cars with "properly humble" workers in uniform was something that the American middle class had never experienced. Hence, part of the appeal of traveling on sleeping cars was, in a sense, to have an upper-class experience. From the very start porters were featured in Pullman's ads promoting his new sleeper service. Initially they were one of the features that most clearly distinguished his carriages from those of competitors, but eventually nearly all would follow his lead, hiring African-Americans as porters, cooks, waiters and Red Caps (railway station porters).
While the pay was very low by the standards of the day, in an era of significant racial prejudice, being a Pullman porter was one of the best jobs available for African American men. Thus, for black men, while this was an opportunity, at the same time it was also an experience of being stereotyped as the servant class and having to take a lot of abuse. Many passengers called every porter “George,” as if he were George Pullman’s “boy”, a practice that was born in the South where slaves were named after their slavemasters, or in this case porters being seen as servants of George Pullman. The only ones who protested were other men named George, who founded the Society for the Prevention of Calling Sleeping Car Porters George, or
SPCSCPG, which eventually claimed 31,000 members. Although the SPCSCPG was more interested in defending the dignity of its white members than in achieving any measure of racial justice, it nevertheless had some effects for all porters. In 1926 the SPCSCPG persuaded the Pullman Company to install small racks in each car, displaying a card with the given name of the porter on duty. Of the 12,000 porters and waiters then working for Pullman, only 362 turned out to be named George. Stanley G. Grizzle, a former Canadian porter, titled his autobiography, My Name's Not George: The Story of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.
Porters were not paid a livable wage and needed to rely on tips to earn enough to make a living. Walter Biggs, son of a Pullman porter, spoke of memories of being a Pullman porter as told to him by his father:
"One of the most remarkable stories I liked hearing about was how when Jackie Gleason would ride ... all the porters wanted to be on that run. The reason why? Not only because he gave every porter $100.00, but it was just the fun, the excitement, the respect that he gave the porters. Instead of their names being George, he called everybody by their first name. He always had like a piano in the car and they sang and danced and had a great time. He was just a fun person to be around."
The number of porters employed by railroads declined as sleeping car service dwindled in the 1960s, and as railroad lines went bankrupt due to competition from the airlines. By 1969 the ranks of the Pullman sleeping car porters had declined to 325 men with an average age of 63.
A porter was expected to greet passengers, carry baggage, make up the sleeping berths, serve food and drinks, shine shoes, and keep the cars tidy. He needed to be available night and day to wait on the passengers. They were expected to always smile, thus the porters often called the job, ironically, “miles of smiles.”
It is not widely known that in the early 1900s, the heyday of luxury travel, the more luxurious trains also had African-American Pullman maids to care for women's needs, especially women with children. They were expected to assist ladies with their bath, be able to give manicures and dress hair, and assist with children.
According to historian Greg LeRoy, "A Pullman Porter was really kind of a glorified hotel maid and bellhop in what Pullman called a hotel on wheels. The Pullman Company just thought of the porters as a piece of equipment, just like another button on a panel - the same as a light switch or a fan switch." Porters worked 400 hours a month or 11,000 miles, sometimes as much as 20 hours at a stretch. They were expected to arrive at work several hours early to prepare their car, on their own time; they were charged whenever their passengers stole a towel or a water pitcher. On overnight trips, they were allocated only three to four hours of sleep -- and that was deducted from their pay. "It didn't pay a livable wage, but they made a living with the tips that they got, because the salary was nothing, " says Lyn Hughes of the A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum. The company expected its employees to pay for their own meals, supply their own uniforms and shoe polish used to shine passengers shoes daily. There was little job security and the Pullman Company inspectors were known for suspending porters for trivial reasons.
Historian Timuel Black recounts Pullman porters saying, "They were good looking, clean and immaculate in their dress, their style was quite manly, their language was very carefully crafted, so that they had a sense of intelligence about them ... they were good role models for young men."
According to Larry Tye, who authored Rising from the Rails: The Pullman Porters and the Making of the Black Middle Class, George Pullman was aware that as former chattel slaves, the men he hired had already received the perfect training and "knew just how to take care of any whim that a customer had." Tye further explained that Pullman was aware that there was never a question that a traveler would be embarrassed by running into one of the porters and having them remember something they had done during their trip that they didn't want their wife or husband, perhaps, to know about.
Black historian and journalist Thomas Fleming began his career as a bellhop and then spent five years as a cook for the Southern Pacific Railroad. Fleming was the co-founder and executive editor of Northern California's largest weekly African-American newspaper. In a weekly series of articles entitled, "Reflections on Black History", he wrote of the contradictions in the life of a Pullman porter:
"Pullman went on to become the biggest single employer of blacks in America, and the job of Pullman porter was, for most of the 101-year history of the Pullman Company, one of the very best a black man could aspire to, in status and eventually in pay. The porter reigned supreme on George's sleeper cars. But the very definition of their jobs, of their kingdom, roiled in contradictions. The porter was servant as well as host. He had the best job in his community and the worst on the train. He could be trusted with his white passengers' children and their safety, but only for the five days of a cross-country trip. He shared his riders' most private moments but, to most, remained an enigma if not an enemy."
In 2008 Amtrac attempted to locate and interview the few remaining living former Pullman porters, in their 90s and over 100 at that time. The project coordinator remarked, "Even today, observers are struck by how elegant the elderly men are. When we find them, they are dapper. They are men, even at this age, who wear suits and ties.”
The Order of Sleeping Car Conductors was organized on February 20, 1918, in Kansas City, Missouri. Members had to be white males. Because the order did not admit blacks, A. Philip Randolph began organizing the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Using the motto "Fight or Be Slaves", on August 25, 1925, 500 porters met in Harlem and decided to make an effort to organize. Under Randolph's leadership the first black union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters was formed and slowly working conditions and salaries improved.
By forming the first black labor union the Pullman porters also laid the groundwork for the civil rights movement which began in the 1950s. Union organizer and former Pullman porter E. D. Nixon played a crucial role in organizing the landmark Montgomery Bus Boycott in Alabama in 1955. He was the one who bailed Rosa Parks out of jail after she refused to move on the bus, and the one who selected her as the figure to build the boycott around.
By the 1960s, between the decline of the passenger rail system and the cultural shifts in American society, the contribution of the Pullman porters became obscured, becoming for some in the African American community a symbol of subservience to cultural and economic domination.
In 1969 the Pullman Company went out of business and the railroads stopped the practice of hiring only black men as porters. In 1978 the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters ceased to exist as a separate organization and merged with the larger Brotherhood of Railway and Airline Clerks.
Contribution to a black middle class
Pullman porters are credited by many people as contributing to the development of the black middle class in America. In the late 19th century they were among the only people in their communities to travel extensively. As a result they became a conduit of new information and ideas from the wider world to their communities. Many Pullman porters supported community projects, including schools, and saved rigorously in order to ensure that their children were able to obtain an education and thus better employment. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown were descendants of Pullman porters. Marshall was also a porter himself, as was Malcolm X and the photo journalist Gordon Parks.
A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum
Founded by Lyn Hughes, the A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum was established in Chicago in 1995 to celebrate both the life of A. Philip Randolph and the role of African Americans in the U.S. labor movement. Located in the Pullman Historic District on Chicago’s South Side neighborhood, it is part of the US Department of Interior’s Pullman national historic Landmark district. The museum houses a collection of artifacts and documents related to the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters . In 2001, the museum compiled a national registry of black railroad employees who worked for the railroad from the late 1800s to 1969.
In August 2013, the museum celebrated the 50 year anniversary of the historic March on Washington. Two Pullman porters, Milton Jones, 98, and Benjamin Gaines, 90, were scheduled to speak at the celebration.
Notable Pullman porters
- Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters - The first African-American trade union
- Gandy dancer
- Miles of Smiles, Years of Struggle - A documentary about the organization of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters
- Pullman Company
- Pullman loaf - A type of long, square bread developed to be baked in the small kitchens of rail cars
- Pullman Strike
- Pullman train (UK)
- Sleeping Car
- The Road Taken - A documentary about Black railway porters in Canada
- Lawrence Tye (2011-05-05). "Choosing Servility To Staff America's Trains | Alicia Patterson Foundation". Aliciapatterson.org. Retrieved 2013-07-19.
- "Pullman Porters, The: From Servitude to Civil Rights". WTTW. Retrieved 2013-07-19.
- "The Sad Plight of Passenger Service". The Meriden Journal. 6 January 1969. Retrieved 14 November 2013.
- "Miles of Smiles - About Pullman Porters". Paul Wagner Films. Retrieved 2013-07-19.
- Tye, Larry. "Interview with Larry Tye". Npr.org. Retrieved 2011-11-09.
- Cavanaugh, Maureen. "The African-American Railroad Experience". KPBS.org. Retrieved 2013-07-19.
- Morning Edition (2009-05-08). "Pullman Porters Helped Build Black Middle Class". NPR. Retrieved 2013-07-19.
- "Reflections on Black History". Freepress.org. Retrieved 2013-07-19.
- Posted by Ron (2012-04-26). "US Slave: Pullman Porters". Usslave.blogspot.de. Retrieved 2014-02-15.
- Stewart, Estelle May (1936). Handbook of American trade-unions: 1936 edition. U. S. Govt. Print. Off. for the United States. Bureau of Labor Statistics. pp. 252–253. Retrieved 2013-08-07.
- "Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters". Windsor Mosaic Website. Retrieved 2013-08-07.
- Harry Bruinius (2008-02-29). "Pullman porters tell tales of a train ride through history". CSMonitor.com. Retrieved 2014-02-15.
- "A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum". Retrieved 2009-03-09.
- "Lyn Hughes". Encore.org. Retrieved 2014-02-15.
- Posted by Ron (2012-04-26). "US Slave: Pullman Porters". Usslave.blogspot.de. Retrieved 2014-02-15.
- "Pullman Porter Museum to Celebrate 50th Anniversary of Historic March - Pullman - DNAinfo.com Chicago". Dnainfo.com. 2013-08-07. Retrieved 2014-02-15.
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