Chicago Tribune

Behind the Pullman curtain: A new book looks at the history and traditions of the company’s sleeping-car porters

by Leon Fink

August 22, 2004

Pullman porters, of necessity, were accomplished actors. Working for the largest employer of African-Americans in the United States for nearly a century, they put on — for their employer, for the passengers they served, and (out of a different but no-less-pressing logic) for themselves and their families — one of the best traveling shows in American history. In “Rising From the Rails: Pullman Porters and the Making of the Black Middle Class,” Larry Tye shows a keen eye for the first two acts, but in the end, he, too, mistakes the performers for the real people behind the curtain.

Parlaying a $100,000 investment in his “palace car” of the 1860s into a virtual monopoly over the railroad-sleeping-car industry, George Pullman seized on service as a necessary complement to luxurious accommodations. Five-star service was his trump card in getting railroads not only to acquire Pullman cars but to lease his Pullman staff as well. And by the late 1860s, there was no better (and certainly no cheaper) pool of servant labor than the former house slaves of the Deep South. To complement the white conductor, Pullman hired his first black porter in 1867; by 1870 the porter had become a fixture on his trains. By the 1920s, some 12,000 porters were serving more than 100,000 passengers a night, more than the clientele of all the topnotch hotels in the country combined.

In creating a new service empire, Pullman’s moving hotel depended not only on physical comfort but also on the image of deferential and keenly personal attention. To feel safe and comfortable amid overnight travel, middle-class customers, intuits Tye about Pullman’s thinking, needed “a man you could look at but not notice. . . . An invisible man.” The only Pullman job to require a photograph by way of application, the porter needed not only to be African-American but, according to one porter, ” ‘the blackest man with the whitest teeth.’ ” Subordinate to the white conductor (whose pay tripled his), the black, male porter (a few female “maids” were added in the 20th Century) functioned as valet, bellhop, maid and janitor all rolled up in one. Adapting the familiar, first-person address of a master to a servant, passengers regularly called porters George, condescendingly linking the employee to his all-powerful employer.

Drawing on a rich archive of Pullman porter autobiographies, oral histories, as well as his own interviews with nearly 40 black railroad employees (the youngest of whom was already in his 80s), Tye neatly synthesizes the work history and expressive traditions of his subjects. “[B]efore anything,” he pithily notes, the porter was “a man who made beds”:

“Or, as they said, made down beds, since the most taxing part was popping the upper berth from the ceiling. The lower was formed by folding down opposing seats, fastening curtains, affixing the headboard, and adding blankets, pillows, and linen. An experienced porter could do all that in three to five minutes, with hands working independently of toilworn bodies; some claimed to finish in just ninety seconds, which would be handy since they had to do it dozens more times a night. Porters also learned touches that never made it into the rulebook. Like knowing just the spot and angle to lay folded sheets so the bed essentially made itself. Or keeping linen loose enough on the lower berth that a restless passenger could wriggle and toss, but taking no chances with the upper, where a wrong turn could send the sleeper into free fall.”

For the porter, cultivating the good graces of the passenger was not simply an order from on high. It was his bread and butter. Sleeping three hours a night, working twice the number of hours of a typical manufacturing worker, and earning an average wage of less than $35 per month as late as 1915 (this before deductions for uniforms and other required equipment), the porter depended desperately on individual passenger tips to make ends meet. Yet the very search for tips tried the porter’s soul. A young Malcolm X, who watched the porters during a brief stint as a Pullman car cleaner, captured the tension:

” ‘It didn’t take me a week to learn that all you had to do was give white people a show and they’d buy anything you offered them. It was like popping your shoeshine rag. The dining car waiters and Pullman porters knew it too, and they faked their Uncle Tomming to get bigger tips.’ ”

To be sure, the porters came up with their own bag of tricks to exact a degree of leverage from a stressful situation. To clear the smoking room of passengers so they could get some sleep, porters would announce an unscheduled cleanup time. Secreting food away in the kitchen cooler and filling coffee cups three-quarters full so they wouldn’t spill were small ways to bend elaborate Pullman rules to the workers’ advantage.

In addition, a workaday slang allowed for porter-to-porter communication, while marathon games of bid whist (a shortened form of bridge) helped pass the deadening hours. Evidence suggests, moreover, that the sometimes-fractious ranks of porters, conductors and dining-room employees united when it came to a variety of petty, flimflam operations aimed at squeezing a little money, food, or whiskey from the Pullman Co.’s coffers.

Most of all, the porters told themselves stories to get through hard times. Many of the narratives were undoubtedly true, but others (like the manly revenge stories against rude, condescending passengers) were probably invented to serve a psychological imperative.

More concrete forms of leverage and dignity emerged with the formation of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in 1925. In the face of the Pullman Co.’s harsh anti-union policy — including spies and payoffs to black newspapers, YMCAs and politicians who would speak against labor organizing — rank-and-file activists had to proceed with caution, and even stealth. Wives of porters, for example, took the lead in collecting dues, handing out literature and even standing in for their husbands at organizing meetings.

Likewise, organizers chose an outsider unreachable by company intimidation as union president. With a theatricality in keeping with his own past as a preacher’s son, Shakespearean actor, and socialist agitator and editor, as well as with the porters’ own penchant for exaggerated storytelling and calculated dissembling, A. Philip Randolph quickly emerged as an irrepressible advocate for the porters’ cause.

Appealing with stentorian oratory to his African-American constituency to “fight or be slaves,” Randolph employed his own artful stratagems to deal with fearful workers, a hostile employer and skeptical white union allies. In the face of taunting by the company, he made bold to threaten a strike in 1928, only to “postpone” it following a face-saving appeal from American Federation of Labor chief William Green. Years later, Randolph would employ a similar ruse with his March on Washington Movement, aimed at desegregating defense jobs during World War II. Here, too, a powerful bark (eliciting President Franklin Roosevelt’s executive order creating the Fair Employment Practice Committee in 1941) allowed him to dodge a public showdown and true test of strength.

Around this trickster-labor leader developed an oral legend of bravery and incorruptibility. In one of many variations on the Randolph “blank check” story, a check for $10,000 from a Pullman agent was said to have arrived at union headquarters with a note urging the labor leader to take a European vacation. Randolph, so the story goes, sent it back by registered mail. Both as labor and civil rights leader, Randolph skillfully piloted his community through trying times. And, as a nationwide network of fighters and scrappers, the porters’ union itself served the post-1954 civil rights generation with leaders and as a model of struggle.

Tye brings to his subject the pluses and minuses of the enthusiast engaging new material. Energetically digging into a mountain of evidence, he offers a generally fair-minded and comprehensive treatment of his subject. Occasionally, however, he stumbles on historical details. The Black Codes passed by Southern states after the Civil War did not “undermine” the 14th Amendment; they preceded and indirectly precipitated it. The Pullman strike of 1894 paid a “big dividend” for Eugene Debs only in the most unwanted way for an imprisoned and defeated labor leader. The “federal” union locals into which organized porters were initially dispatched by the AFL were not an explicitly racist creation, but rather the generic holding pens for all organized groups that did not fit the federation’s craft-centered criteria.

More importantly, Tye fails to offer a convincing case that the jobs or organization of the porters germinated the black middle class. For a thesis built into the book’s title — but elaborated more in the introduction and conclusion than in the body of the text–he offers little more than a string of names and anecdotes. The claim that many “owned homes and cars,” absent attention to time and place, is not convincing. That future leaders like Thurgood Marshall, Roy Wilkins and Benjamin Mays helped pay for college by summer work on the railroads hardly advances the thesis. Tye refers to a report that in one Chicago railway station in the early 1940s, 72 of 90 porters had college degrees. But does such evidence prove that portering was a ticket to mobility, or that mobility into the middle-class was blocked for reasons of skin color?

As today’s political rhetoric shows, everyone wants into the American middle class. And being “middle class” is clearly taken as a sign of accomplishment, especially for those who begin in a ruder station. That 80-plus-year-old former porters would tell an eager correspondent just how they, too, became middle class is perfectly understandable. The porters, of necessity, were accomplished actors.

Copyright © 2004, Chicago Tribune