The Pullman Porter had a pivotal role in the Civil Rights Movement. His official job description was to assist the passengers on the luxurious Pullman Sleeping Car. His real job was to create the black middle class and forge countless organizations. The porter is known primarily for the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, which marked the first black labor union to sign a contract with a large company. In addition to all the historical accomplishments of the union, the porter provides vital insight into the black experience.
The first point of business is explaining the Pullman Company. The Pullman Company manufactured luxury train cars for overnight travel. The Pullman Company also contracted out the crew to run the car. The crew members were called Sleeping Car Porters. The founder George Pullman began the company after having to sleep in the train chair on an overnight trip to visit relatives. He started to design a car with rooms with full-size beds called berths. Pullman also elicited help from the government to create favorable laws and obtain funding. Pullman befriended the son of Abraham Lincoln, Robert Todd Lincoln while petitioning the government. Lincoln took over the company after the death of George Pullman. Both men were fiercely anti-union regardless of the race of the members.
In the simplest terms, a Pullman Porter is equivalent to airline stewardess with far more responsibilities. A porter would greet the passenger upon entrance to the train, carry the bags, show the passengers around the car, and cater to the various needs of the passenger. Porters acted as babysitters while parents drank, nurses when the elderly passengers were sick, and safety advisors when the tracks got rocky. The porter was always available with a smile to make sure his passenger’s trip was remarkable.
Pullman preferred to hire dark-skinned, tall, thin porter’s from the American South. They needed to be tall to reach the shelves above the berths. He needed to be thin to walk by passengers in the narrow hallway without touching. Southern to be sufficiently submissive, Northern blacks were often too rowdy. The dark-skin was especially important. Dark-skin marked the division between passenger and porter. The passenger needed to see the porter, but the passenger should never be obliged to consider the porter fully human. The porter was “other,” a servant, and he wanted the passenger to see him as such.
The passengers on Sleeping Cars were known for their rambunctiousness. The Pullman Car was one of the most expensive ways to travel at the time. The liquor flowed freely on the train, so much so, that passengers often “found themselves in strangers beds.” A Pullman trip would be equivalent to a modern day cruise.
In addition to most passengers spending a significant amount of time on the journey drunk, the white passenger treated the porter with very little respect. The most notable feature of the disrespect was referring to all porters as “George.” The name harkens back to slavery when slaves received their master’s last name. Since the owner of the company was named George, all his black workers were George by default. Termination was the penalty for not answering to George. The Pullman Manual had two hundred and seventy rules. A porter could never show and any indication that he was angry or hurt by a passenger’s comment.
Even though porters were not allowed to fraternize with the passengers, many passengers made advances on the porters. Sumner Welles was Undersecretary of State in 1940. Welles was exemplary as a diplomat and was picked to succeed the current Secretary of State Cordell Hull. Welles derailed his career by getting drunk and offering a porter money for sex. The porter told superiors, and other porters said Welles made the same advances on them. Various government officials confirmed the story and Welles was not picked to be Secretary of State. A 1977 tell-all memoir was the first utterance of this story.
Not all advances were turned down. Here is a story of a young porter and a bride whose husband had to disembark early from the train. The account comes from Larry Tye’s book Rising from the Rails.
Watching her husband ride off in a covered wagon, she struck up a conversation with [A porter] “You -you know you’re the first Nig-nigger I have ever talked to. Can I? I? – believe all- believe all my mother and father have told me about you people?” she inquired hesitatingly, with a peculiar smile. Her remarks flashed through my mind, bringing with them thing the boys had told me that white people say about niggahs, and I realized what she was suggesting. It’s sure hard to make white people believe that what they say might be true about some of us, but not about the whole race. Still, as the legend is to our advantage, I left my work for an hour, so that it shouldn’t die with me.
Not all white and black interchanges were agreeable. The porter had to find ways to protect himself that did violate company rules. Larry Tye recounts a story from The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Malcolm X worked for a few years as a Pullman Porter before turning to a life of crime and later conversion to Islam.
I remember that once, when some passengers complaints had gotten me a warning, and I wanted to be careful, I was working down the aisle and a big, beefy, red-faced cracker soldier got up in front of me, so drunk he was weaving and announced loud enough that everybody in the car heard him, “I’m going to fight you nigger.” I remember the tension, I laughed and told him, “Sure, I’ll fight, but you’ve got too many clothes on.” He had on a big Army overcoat. He took that off, and I kept laughing and said he still had on too many. I was able to keep that cracker stripping off clothes until he stood there drunk with nothing on from his pants up, and the whole car was laughing at him, and some other soldiers got him out of the way. I went on. I never would forget that – that I couldn’t have whipped that white man as badly with a club as I had with my mind.”
Relations between blacks on the train was also interesting. Because porters had to suppress their anger toward passengers they often lashed out against each other. Often porters would accuse other porters of “cooning.” Cooning is acting overly obliging to get bigger tips. A charge of cooning could come from having too big a smile for too long or the egregious dancing for customer’s amusement. Ultimately, all the porters had to compromise their pride to work for the Pullman company. An arbitrary line separates following orders and cooning. Cooning was always something the other guy did.
The other large part of the Pullman crew was the kitchen staff. To keep with plantation tradition, the kitchen workers were normally light skinned. Often porters would say waiters were soft and did not work hard. Many people will say that this is a remnant of anger from the plantation hierarchy. Light-skinned slaves, commonly descendant of the master, got “easier” jobs in the house. I think that the animosity between porters and kitchen staff was just another way to expel suppressed anger from passenger’s behavior.
Ultimately, kitchen staff and porters worked together. Kitchen staff would save scraps to make stew. Porters would keep an eye out for empty berths to allow the cooks and waiters to get a good night’s sleep. The kitchen staff could easily sneak out before the passengers awakened. In the end, both kitchen staff and porter were on the same team. If they did not work together, they would sink together.
I will detail the formation of The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in later blog posts. As of now, I will say the contract between Pullman Company and The Brotherhood will be the first time and all black union will force a major company to sign a contract. The victory catapults Brotherhood President A. Philip Randolph to national acclaim. He uses his fame to make the National Negro Congress, which is a militant alternative to the NAACP. The National Negro Congress folds due to internal conflict. He learns many leadership lessons from the organization and begins a campaign to desegregate the government and military.
To rally support, Randolph rallies crowds around the idea of a March on Washington. Originally, Randolph was going to get 10,000 people to demonstrate in Washington, DC. Once he started relaying the idea to crowds across the country people from all over the nation and of all political persuasions. Randolph officially set the date of the march on June 27, 1941.
Franklin D. Roosevelt did not want a public demonstration at this time. FDR was attempting to gain support for joining in the fight in World War II. He was also afraid that communist would cause a disturbance in the rally and put American race relations on a world stage. FDR met with Randolph to come to a compromise that would allow for Randolph to call off the march. The result was Executive Order 8802 which desegregated the defense industry government and contractor. Two days before the March on Washington 1941 was to happen it was called off.
Randolph does not just fold up shop and go home. He expands the March on Washington Movement. He builds a March on Washington headquarters in all major American cities. The March on Washington protest take place all over the country for twenty years, and it causes change at the local level. On the national level, the March on Washington Movement forced Truman to sign Executive Order 9981, finally desegregating the military. The last March on Washington was in 1963. Dr. King’s gives his “I Have A Dream” speech at this rally.
Dr. King owes much of his career to Randolph and Ed Nixon. Ed Nixon was President of the Montgomery Branch of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Because Nixon was running the Brotherhood and various Montgomery political organization, Ed Nixon recommends Dr. King to run the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The boycott lasts for over a year. Dr. King proves to Nixon he has potential and Nixon introduces him to Randolph. Randolph and his team gave Dr. King the tutelage he needed to lead the movement.
In addition to providing an organizational template and leaders, the Brotherhood provided funding for various organizations in the Civil Rights Movement. Randolph’s motto was, “ Whoever pays the piper calls the tune.” For a black organization to be truly independent, it had to be funded by black people. Malcolm X echoes the same sentiment in later years. Randolph would often invite Malcolm to his personal residence to tell him stories of the Harlem’s socialist movement and talk about politics. A. Philip Randolph and other black leaders including Elijah Muhammad started blacks down the road to self-determination.
The Pullman Porter has a dubious legacy in the minds of Black America. On the one hand, they had a servile role and had to take abuse without fighting back directly. On the other hand, they laid the foundation for the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s. I feel the Pullman Porter is the ultimate symbol of the black middle class. Often we work in jobs in which we are under-utilized and treated with disrespect. Not to the same extent as the porter, but disrespect nonetheless. We do that to support the aspirations of our family and those that want to fight white supremacy directly. The fight against white supremacy takes many forms. Blacks have to utilize many methods to fight it. The porter was one of the most cunning soldiers in this battle.
The information for this blog post comes from Larry Tye’s book Rising From The Rails
For more information on the Pullman Porters please vist the official museum. HERE
April 6, 2017 at 12:01 pm
Thanks for this; ordered the book. 📚
November 13, 2017 at 11:40 pm