rftr_coverThe most influential black man in America for the 100 years following the Civil War was a figure no one knew. He was not the educator Booker T. Washington or the sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois, although both were inspired by him. He was the one black man to appear in more movies than Harry Belafonte or Sidney Poitier. He discovered the North Pole alongside Admiral Peary and helped give birth to the blues. He launched the Montgomery bus boycott that sparked the civil rights movement, and tapped Martin Luther King Jr. to lead both.

The most influential black man in American was the Pullman porter.

For millions of whites who rode the sleeping cars west towards San Francisco or south to Florida, the porter was the African-American man they mixed with more than any other, yet understood not at all. They did not know that scores of men like North Pole pioneer Matthew Henson and blues legend “Big Bill” Broonzy had worked on the sleepers until they earned enough money and confidence to try something else. They saw porters serve as props in hundreds of films, but few realized porters’ starring roles as patriarchs of black labor, or in financing and orchestrating the civil rights struggle from Montgomery right through the 1963 March on Washington. And no one calculated porters’ most lasting legacy: activists like NAACP boss Roy Wilkins, political leaders like Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, artists like jazz great Oscar Peterson, and all their other children and grandchildren, nephews and nieces, who run universities and municipalities, sit on corporate and editorial boards, and helped give birth to today’s black middle class.

If whites did not grasp that, they can be excused. Few blacks did, either. In his earliest years the Pullman porter was seen in the black world as a figure whose very presence captured the romance of the railroad, a traveling man with cosmopolitan sensibilities and money in his pockets. But by the 1960s he had come to personify the grinning servant, an Uncle Tom transplanted from plantation to locomotion. Neither image was complete. Behind the porter’s constant smile and courtly service lay a day-to-day struggle for dignity that anticipated black America’s bloody crawl towards equity. If race is the story of America, the Pullman porter represents one of its most resonant chapters.

Yet while the nation’s racial history is an unwieldy story, one that convulsed the nation from its most remote corners to its most public spaces, the tale of the Pullman porter unraveled within the narrow confines of a rail car, and thus can serve as a kind of historical prism. It was a capsule of space and time where all the rules of racial engagement came into succinct and, at times, painful focus. Sometimes they were suspended all-together — as long as the train was moving, that is. The porter’s story extends from the end of the Civil War to 1969, when the Pullman Company terminated its sleeping car service, which lets us see how those close contacts between the races evolved over a complete century.

I came to this story by accident. Ten years ago, when I was a Nieman fellow at Harvard University, professor John Stilgoe used the Pullman porters to help explain the shaping of America’s landscape and culture. Porters were agents of change, we learned, much the way Jewish peddlers had been in the shtetls of Europe and small towns across the United States. They carried radical music like jazz and blues from big cities to outlying burgs. They brought seditious ideas about freedom and tolerance from the urban North to the segregated South. And when white riders left behind newspapers and magazines, porters picked up bits of news and new ways of doing things, refining them in each place they visited, and leaving behind a town or village that was a bit less insular and parochial.

What they saw and read changed them, too. It made porters determined that their children would get the formal learning they had been denied. Who they met was even more transforming. Most people who rode Pullman cars have only vague memories of their porters, albeit pleasant ones. The porters, by contrast, were keen observers of the politicians and movie stars, businessmen and leisure travelers, who boarded their trains. They shined their shoes and marveled over the careful stitching and soft leather. They took their orders and noticed their meticulous phrasing and mannered expressions. Through their time on the train these black porters learned the ways of a white world most had only vague exposure to before, coming to know how it worked and how to work with it. All of which helped fill in their expanding sense of self-esteem and power. I don’t know if you ever heard about the three Ls, because L stands for so many things, explained Jimmy Clark, who worked as a chef on the Pullman cars from 1918 to 1950. But these three Ls was ‘look,’ ‘listen,’ and ‘learn.’ And those things imbedded into my mind to the point where I lived with it, and it helped me all through this world, and it’s helping me to this day.

Professor Stilgoe’s preoccupation with such porter stories quickly became mine. It stayed with me when I returned to the Boston Globe after my year at Harvard, and saw how critical race was to so many issues I wrote about, from Pentecostalism’s becoming the fastest-growing religion in the world, and especially the black community, to why Boston still cherishes its forty-year-old program for busing inner-city blacks to largely-white suburban schools. My first book, The Father of Spin, taught me how biography can tell a bigger story, in that case how spinmeisters like public relations pioneer Edward L. Bernays help determine our commercial choices and define our public discourse. My second one, Home Lands, on the renewal underway across the Jewish world, helped me see how religion and race can furnish identity and hope.

Pullman porters embrace all that. They are men whose compelling biographies tell bigger stories of racial dynamics, democracy, and the building of African-America. Not only are they a singular tale of history, they are one that is living and breathing today. Behind most every successful African-American, there is a Pullman porter.

Or so it appeared as I cross-checked porters against lists of prominent black scientists and artists, political and business leaders. One in every few had a porter father or grandfather, uncle, cousin, or in-law. Others had worked on the sleepers themselves. The theory that porters fueled black advancement seemed true beyond my imagination. But it was equally clear that such progress came at an enormous price. For every inch the porter gained there was a humiliation to endure. The very definition of his job was roiling in contradictions. He was servant as well as host. His was the best job in his community and the worst on the train. He could be trusted with white passengers’ children and safety, but only for the five days of a cross-country trip. The Pullman porter shared his riders’ most private moments but, to most, he remained an enigma if not a cipher.

To fill in that puzzle I had to find and talk to porters, which was a challenge. Every newspaper story I read said there were only a handful left in the country, which made sense since the Pullman Company had been out of business thirty years and had hired very few porters for the thirty before that. I tried to track them down using every technique I learned during twenty years as a journalist in Boston, Louisville, and Anniston, Alabama. I posted ads in black papers, railroad journals, and retirement magazines. I scoured retirement records the company left behind in Chicago, then wrote to every porter there was a chance could still be alive. High-tech detective agencies ran searches at $10 a shot, Amtrak scoured its files and collective memory, authors who had written about porters or their union offered up contacts, and interns helped me contact black politicians, ministers, civil rights leaders, and nursing home administrators across America.

It worked. All told I found nearly forty porters and other black railroad workers, along with dozens of their daughters, sons, and other relatives. I reached Babe and Virgil Smock, two survivors in a family of Pullman men that traced back three generations, with a fourth opting out after a brief experiment. I talked to a 102-year-old porter named Ernest Porter. Ernest had difficulty recalling the name of his grandson who left ten minutes before I arrived at his senior center, but this grandson of slaves recounted in detail how he had learned to get by sleeping just four hours a night in cramped quarters and eating warmed-over food in a blacks-only section of the dining car. Each porter I met led me to another. By the end I found there were a handful not in the country, but in most every city that had been a railroad terminus, from Washington to Los Angeles, Boston and Chicago. The youngest were in their 80s, the oldest their early 100s. I also found and talked to black dining car waiters, chefs, and bartenders, and to porters who worked directly for the railroads. The Pullman porter is a metaphor for them and tens of thousands of other African-Americans who worked the railroads, including such celebrated figures as Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and activist Malcolm X. This book tells their story, too.

Every time I showed up on a porter’s doorstep, or a waiter’s, we went through a similar dance. They greeted me politely, but their facial expressions suggested I had dropped in from another planet. What’s a white man like you got to do with my story? one longtime porter asked. Fair question, and one I asked myself as I wondered whether I would be able to tell a black man’s story the same way I had ones about my Jewish community and the familiar world of public relations. It was exactly because of those earlier books, and what they had taught me about biography and the history of ethnic communities, that I took on this one. And it was these porters’ reaction to me by the end of our interviews that let me know my decision was right. Fifteen minutes into every conversation their doubts seemed to dissipate. What mattered was not that I was white, but that I was there, and they were old and worried their stories would die with them. All the black railroad workers I talked to despaired at how little their children and grandchildren knew about what they had been through, the suffering or the triumphs. In their younger days they felt it essential to shield their families from that, not wanting to burden them or brag, but now these porters were determined that the new generations grasp their roots.

After tracking down every African-American railroad worker I could find, I spent weeks listening to dozens of tapes other interviewers made of workers no longer alive. I pored through memoirs, letters, and articles left by early porters. I reviewed 2,500 cubic feet of management, labor, and employee records that the Pullman Company bequeathed to the Newberry Library in Chicago, along with the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters’ files at the Chicago Historical Society, Library of Congress, and New York Public Library. Scores of habitual Pullman passengers told me what they knew about porters, as did scholars, archivists, and civil rights leaders. I watched Pullman porters in movies, documentary and commercial, and read everything written by or about them in fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and songs. I also made a tactical decision after consulting with black railroad workers and seeing how they had described themselves over the years: I opted to call them Negroes in the period when that was what they called themselves, and when I refer back to that time. I switch to black and African-American in writing about eras when those terms began to be used.

The story that emerges from my conversations with and research on porters has a cast of full-bodied characters — from George Pullman, the visionary and ruthless Caesar of the sleeping cars, to Robert Todd Lincoln, the Great Emancipator’s son who presided over the Pullman Company during one of its most oppressive eras, to A. Phillip Randolph, firebrand founder of the porters’ union and a father of the civil rights movement. Yet the real stars are the Pullman porters themselves, men like Jimmy Clark and the Smock family, whose narratives have been scarcely articulated, with the popular press and historians treating them as footnotes, and Hollywood portraying them as featureless step-and-fetch-it characters.

The tale of those Pullman porters is, most of all, a story of America — of how one group, disadvantaged and powerless, learned to triumph in the sometimes brutal sea of American democracy. It is a story of black men not just riding along the rails, but rising from them.