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Forgotten history
July 22, 2004

An important part of the African American experience had fallen unceremoniously into the forgotten archives of history. However, Larry Tye, the author and former Boston Globe reporter, rescued the social history of the Pullman Porters from oblivion in his recently published book, “Rising From The Rails.”

Blacks under the age of 40 have no personal memory of Pullman Porters because the Pullman Company had terminated its sleeping car service in 1969. And for at least a decade earlier Pullman had contracted its service as the commercial airlines encroached on its market. But there was a time when Pullman was king.

George Pullman began designing more comfortable and luxurious railroad cars at about the same time that Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves. There were others who recognized the necessity of improving upon the standard, uncomfortable railroad coach, but they lacked the marketing genius of Pullman.

Pullman designed his cars for the more affluent who, because of their wealth, were accustomed to service. What group was better equipped to provide such service than the recently freed slaves who had been reared in servility and were currently unemployed. No social benefactor, Pullman also realized that he could hire freed slaves for less than he would have to pay whites. It was company policy that all porters and waiters must be blacks but conductors are to be white.

While he did not invent the term “porter,” George Pullman’s porters “set a standard for the hospitality industry. They came to define the vocation of railroad attendant and, for most Americans, made porter synonymous with Negro.”

By 1895 Pullman had 2,556 sleeping cars rolling over 126,660 miles of American track. On a given night, at the peak of the railroad traffic, 100,000 people would be accommodated in Pullman sleepers. This was more than all the nation’s top-level hotels combined, according to Tye.

During the 1920s, the Pullman Company was the largest employer of African American men. The job of sleeping car porters was much sought after because of the tips that could be earned. Their numbers included such illustrious men as Thurgood Marshall, Benjamin Mays, former president of Morehouse College, and Roy Wilkins, former national head of the NAACP. A porter who died in a 1923 crash was a 1922 Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Dartmouth College.

The Pullman Company was enormously successful. Stockholders earned $187,880,000 in cash dividends and stock value between 1898 and 1910. Yet porters had to work long hours without sleep, pay for expensive layovers and earned low pay while responsibilities increased. Porters were expected to make up for their low salary by earning tips. College educated blacks, unable to find employment elsewhere, were forced to assume a subservient manner as porters in order to support their families.

Those porters who lacked a formal education found that traveling across the country was a broadening experience. They were also able to transport pamphlets, newspapers and books to black communities in their travels.

One of the working conditions that was most intolerable was that conductors, who were always white and were porters’ supervisors, received three times their salary, and their duties were minimal. When the porters decided to form a union they chose A. Philip Randolph to head it because he was not a porter and would therefore not suffer reprisals.

The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters was founded in August of 1925 but it took 12 years to get its first contract with the Pullman Company. The Brotherhood became the first official black trade union in America.

Although Tye’s research is meticulous, the quality of his writing makes ‘Rising From The Rails’ read like a novel. This book is required reading for those interested in the development of the black middle-class.