What have the poet Claude McKay, the filmmaker Oscar Micheaux, the explorer Matthew Henson, the musician “Big Bill” Broonzy and college president Benjamin Mays in common?
They all worked for the Pullman Company, which until 1969 owned the sleeper cars for and ran the sleeper service on the U.S. railroads, and was at one time “the largest employer of Negroes in America and probably the world.” Blacks, preferably those with “jet-black skin,” supplied “the social separation… vital for porters to safely interact with white passengers in such close quarters.”
Although Tye makes the general case for the centrality of “The Pullman Porter” in the making of the black middle class (and in much of American cultural life), the particular porter becomes supportive detail for a highly readable business history at one end and labor history at the other.
Former Boston Globe journalist Tye (The Father of Spin) interviewed as many surviving porters as he could find as well as their children, and immersed himself in autobiographies, oral histories, biographies, newspapers, company records-wherever the porter might be glimpsed, including fiction and film. Entertaining detail abounds: Bogart was a solid tipper; Seabiscuit traveled in a “specially modified eighty-foot car cushioned with the finest straw.” So does informing detail: the long hours, the dire working conditions, the low pay, the lively idiom, the burdensome rules.