A reasoned assessment of the Pullman porters’ role in black America.
The Pullman porter’s life, reporter/biographer Tye suggests, was “a capsule of space and time where all the rules of racial engagement came into succinct and, at times, painful focus.” He goes on to document the nearly limitless humiliation porters underwent every day — so much so, he writes, that they learned to don a mask at work that could be removed when their shift was done, to maintain their dignity by assuming a countenance that was not their own. Exposed to virulent racism in “one of the most thoroughly segregated workplaces in America,” they became critical sparks in the civil-rights movement. On the other hand, porters led a more cosmopolitan and (relatively) privileged life than most African-Americans, especially during the early years of the Pullman coach. They drew salaries and they traveled, garnering news and ideas from the four corners of the country, serving as agents of change within their communities as they brought home everything from jazz to seditious ideas. Their union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, was a unique and powerful institution. On the complex issue of identity, the author lets the porters speak for themselves about the contrast between their status within their neighborhoods as worldly, respected men and their subordinate position at work: “It was degrading to have to ingratiate themselves to win tips, they say, and more degrading not to get any . . . the line between selling oneself and maximizing tips — that is, between slavery and economic freedom — was very thin.”