Louisville Courier Journal

Larry Tye, in the preface to his new book, Rising from the Rails: Pullman Porters and the Making of the Black Middle Class, insists, “I came to this story by accident.”

I don’t believe it. Tye may have stumbled upon the subject of the Pullman porters in Professor John Stilgoe’s class at Harvard University, where Tye was a Nieman Fellow a decade ago, but it seems to me that my former Courier-Journal colleague was destined to write this book.

I say that because it’s providence, not an accident, when one is kept awake at nights by an idea or a story that’s just burning to be told.

Haunted by men he otherwise never would have known, Tye has lovingly rescued some old black men from obscurity by casting their individual stories within a much larger context of race and class in America.

Telling the story of the Pullman porters required Tye to dig deep. It’s not as if no one has ever written about them before. But too often, their contributions to what we know as the high civil rights era continue to be overlooked. Tye succeeded in probing the recollections of aged men — the youngest of the former Pullman porters are in their 80s — many of whom, by the time he met them, were already drifting off to places where memories go to die.

George Pullman hired his first black porters in the 1860s. Their job was to provide to the railroad’s wealthiest patrons, the ones who paid a pretty penny to travel the rails in Pullman’s finely appointed sleeping cars, a taste of what slave-owning families in the South had long enjoyed, which were black people to cater to their every whim, from the time they arose to the time they finally drifted off to sleep.

No job was too hard or too dirty for a Pullman porter to do.

Pullman was so identified with the excellent service his black porters provided that the rich passengers referred to every one of these men, no matter their given names, as George. This, too, was in the tradition of slavery, because it wasn’t uncommon for slaves, if they had last names at all, to be called by their masters’ names. Even today, many African-American families carry the names of the white families that formerly owned their ancestors.

But I digress.

If Larry Tye were here, I’d plant the the biggest, sloppiest kiss on his cheek that he’s ever gotten. He’s done a wonderful thing for African-American scholarship.

I wanted to know directly from him how he got the stories he was able to tell in his book. He discusses in the preface how he was able to amass the documents that he used to verify historical details and facts that accompany the one-on-one interviews he was determined to get.

Tye was racing against the clock because of the advancing age of the men who were to be his primary resources. The book is dedicated, in fact, to two of them, “Pullman Porter Lawrence ‘Happy’ Davis and dining car waiter Robert McGoings, who enthusiastically shared their stories but did not live to see them told.”

When we finally did talk, Tye said of the old men he interviewed, “When I showed up on their doorsteps, their expressions told me that they had presumed that I would be black. So, for the first 15 minutes of every interview, I had a sense that they were holding back — that they were wondering why I was there and how free they should be in talking to me.

“But something magical happened 15 minutes into every interview, and then I could have been green and from the planet Mars. They were old men who knew that they might not be around long, and it was me or nobody.”

Once the ice melted, Tye said his subjects would spend as long as he wanted answering his questions. Tye said he realized that many of the men were sharing things with him that were so painful that they hadn’t told them even to their wives and children.

“The humiliation they had to endure,” Tye said. “They only told the stories about the good things that happened. They were proud men. But something happens to all of us when we get old enough. We realize that if we don’t tell the full story, it will die with us.”

Tye pursued the story of the Pullman porters with the dogged determination that often overtakes people only when they get passionate about investigating their own family trees. Tye was able to locate nearly 40 surviving Pullman porters and railroad workers of the era.

Out of curiosity, I asked Tye how researching and writing this book affected him.

“I am Jewish,” he said, “and I spent a lot of time in my last book exploring my own heritage.” Of course, he had heard much, he said, about how “blacks and Jews shared a certain story.”

But he said that he didn’t know how much of this to believe, because by the time he came of age — he’s 49 now — the black-Jewish alliance had pretty much dissolved.

“What I saw in writing this book was how much similarity there was between the Holocaust survivors I had interviewed for my last book and these black men who had lived with that kind of abuse 24 hours a day. Everybody black in that era had to put up with amazing abuse. But they could go home at night to their families and friends and let down their guard.

“But these men were on those trains 24 hours a day with all white passengers and could never let down their guard. Their stories had so much in common with Holocaust survivors in terms of the scars that were left and their reluctance to tell their stories until they were really old.

“And one last thing,” Tye said. “It made them incredibly strong.”

I’m delighted Rising from the Rails has been published and that someone I know has written such an important book.

I thank Larry Tye as well for stirring within me my own memories of riding the trains back and forth between Philadelphia to Florida with my godmother when I was little girl.

Sleeping cars were still in use during some of those years. But I never rode one. Money was tight, and we weren’t part of any elite. So my Annie and I slept in our clothes right there in our seats.

Betty Bayé’s columns appear Thursdays in The Forum. You can read them online at www.courier-journal.com.