Pullman Porters

You never know where you’ll find news of boks with African American related topics. Read “Pullman Porters Helped Build Black Middle Class” from NPR:

Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown were descendants of Pullman porters — that distinctive and distinguished figure from yesteryear — the uniformed African-American train worker, who forged his way into the middle class.

As part of this year’s National Train Day celebration on Saturday, Amtrak is honoring the legacy of Pullman porters in Philadelphia. The porters served first-class passengers traveling in the luxurious Pullman sleeping cars, and the safe, steady work that allowed tens of thousands of African-Americans access to middle-class life.

The legacy of Pullman porters is complex, author Larry Tye tells NPR’s Steve Inskeep.

George Pullman, the entrepreneur who invented the sleeping car and began hiring porters for them in 1868, “was looking for people who had been trained to be the perfect servant, and these guys’ backgrounds [were] as having been chattel slaves. He knew that they knew just how to take care of any whim that a customer had.”

Tye, who wrote Rising from the Rails: The Pullman Porters and the Making of the Black Middle Class, says Pullman “knew they would come cheap, and he paid them next to nothing. And he knew that there was never a question off the train that you would be embarrassed by running into one of these Pullman porters and having them remember something you did that you didn’t want your wife or husband, perhaps, to remember during that long trip.”

Over time, the porters were able to combine their meager salaries with tips. They saved and put their children and grandchildren through college, which helped them attain middle-class status.

(Read more. . .)

So, when I see the name Pullman Porter, I instantly think…yeah, I know about them. They were the black men who road on trains assisting white passengers with their every need. But then I thought, well how about those people who don’t even know that much? Maybe that person is you. According to the A. Phillip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum website:

During the century spanning the years 1868-1968, the African-American railroad attendant’s presence on the train became a tradition within the American scene. By the 1920s, a peak decade for the railroads, 20,224 African-Americans were working as Pullman Porters and train personnel. At that time, this was the largest category of black labor in the United States and Canada…

…The porters had tried to organize since the beginning of the century. The wages and working conditions were below average for decades. For example, the porters were required to work 400 hours per month or 11,000 miles—whichever occurred first to receive full pay. Porters depended on the passengers’ tips in order to earn a decent level of pay. Typically, the porters’ tips were more than their monthly salary earned from the Pullman Company. After many years of suffering these types of conditions, the porters united with A. Philip Randolph as their leader. Finally, having endured threats from the Pullman Company such as job loss and harassment, the BSCP forced the company to the bargaining table. On August 25, 1937, after 12 years of battle, the BSCP was recognized as the official union of the Pullman Porters.

Protected by the union, the job of a Pullman Porter was one of economic stability and held high social prestige in the African-American community. A. Philip Randolph utilized the power of the labor union and the unity that it represented to demand significant social changes for African-Americans nationally. The museum’s exhibits tell the story of the power of unity, leadership, action, organization, and determination. This story is one of ordinary men who did extraordinary things. A. Philip Randolph and the members of the BSCP understood the power of collective work and community involvement. They improved the quality of life for themselves and made sure that their efforts improved the lives of those who were to follow. They worked together to fight many battles and they won many victories for African-American people. They demonstrated and personified the meaning of the word brotherhood. These African-American men were American heroes.

If you’re really interested in the topic, there is a film titled 10,000 Black Men Named George that you might consider viewing. I went to sleep on it, but I did learn something before I went to sleep and when I awoke. Maybe you will too.

When the Great Depression struck America in the 1920s finding work was hard, but if you were poor and black it was virtually impossible. Working as a porter for the Pullman Rail Company was an option, but it meant taking home a third as much as while employees and working some days for free. You could forget about being called by your real name–all black porters were simply called “George” after George Pullman, the first person to employ emancipated slaves. Asa Philip Randolph, a black journalist and educated socialist trying to establish a voice for these forgotten workers agrees to fight for the Pullman porters’ cause and form the first black union in America. Livelihoods and lives would be put at risk in the attempt to gain 10,000 signatures of men known only as “George.” This is the true story of how a courageous leader came to be known as “the most dangerous man in America.”

Happy reading, y’all!


3 thoughts on “Pullman Porters

  1. A topic I’ve been exploring in a fiction story I’m writing, involving the murder of a porter on board the Panama Limited. Thanks for the article; if I can find it again when I publish the story, I may cite this blog on my remarks page.


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