Metrowest Daily News

Telling their stories: History of Pullman porters penned by Cambridge man

by Jennifer Lord
Sunday, August 29, 2004

Imagine the glory days of train travel and an image instantly springs to mind: the powerful engine, belching smoke. The dining car, with its white tablecloths and sparkling glasses.

And there’s nighttime, when the berths come down and passengers nestle behind privacy curtains.

But there was someone behind the scenes, someone ensuring this new form of seeing America was as luxurious as possible. They jumped at every passenger’s whim, fought for the right to have three consecutive hours of sleep at night and taught a race how to break the final bonds of slavery.

That was the Pullman porter — a man whose job was to keep the passengers happy and remain anonymous.

The Pullman porter steps to the forefront in “Rising From the Rails: Pullman Porters and the Making of the Black Middle Class” by Cambridge journalist Larry Tye. Tye makes the case that Pullman porters played a strong role in the rise of the black middle class and the Civil Rights Movement, bringing revolutionary thoughts of equality and education to blacks across the country.

No one knows who was the first porter hired by George Pullman, whose sleeping cars were the standard for luxury from the end of the Civil War. He was certainly a black man — Pullman’s standards were “the blacker the better” — and most likely a former house slave. He earned meager wages, earned tips through subservience to passengers and was hard-pressed to find food and lodging during layovers throughout the Jim Crow South.

Nevertheless, the title of “porter” was one coveted by many black men, as an opportunity to see America, move families to friendlier cities up North and ensure their children’s education.

“The Pullman porter is the perfect success story that gives you a capsule look into a bigger story, and that would be the story of race in America,” said Tye, a former reporter for the Boston Globe who now directs the Blue Cross/Blue Shield Foundation’s training program for medical journalists.

Tye became interested in the porters’ stories during his Nieman Foundation Fellowship at Harvard University, where one of his professors used them as an example of a great American success story. As he dug into the history, he found himself faced with one of the biggest challenges in his 20 years as a journalist: finding the invisible men.

Tye dug into old newspaper clippings. He searched through Pullman’s retirement records on file at a Chicago library, identifying 200-300 names as the youngest — and most likely to still be alive. He bought information at $10 a pop at high-tech spy Web sites, bought ads in African-American newspapers and railroad magazines across the United States, contacted African-American political and religious leaders in major railroading towns.

He finally struck gold when he called nursing homes near railroad hubs — there were a few Pullman porters, and where there was one, they knew of at least two others from the old days. Ironically, the last place he thought to look was his own back yard: Boston, where he surprisingly found an entire group.

“I was always reading stories that said there was ‘only a handful’ of Pullman porters left in America,” Tye said. “That’s an example of lazy reporting, one that I’ve probably been guilty of in the past. The truth is, there are a handful of Pullman porters left in every major city.”

The Pullman porters were more than happy to talk about their pasts with the friendly man on the phone. And then Tye, the white guy from Cambridge, would show up on their doorstep.

“It was clear to me what was going on in their heads was ‘What’s going on here? I thought the guy I talked to on the phone was black,'” Tye said. “But these are very polite gentlemen, and 15 minutes into the conversation, it really didn’t matter. These were men in their late 80s, 90s, one was 102, and they didn’t want their stories to die with them. It was me or nobody and 15 minutes into the conversation, it didn’t matter what color I was.”

What he got was a glimpse into the Civil Rights Movement from men who found themselves on the frontlines — discreetly, of course. They were, after all, Pullman porters.

Who was the person who launched the Montgomery bus boycott? History credits Martin Luther King Jr. What few know is that a Pullman porter, Edgar D. Nixon, tapped King to lead the struggle — as much for the size of his church hall as for his oratory skills. The lead organizer of the civil rights march was A. Philip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, whose long struggle for living wages taught the porters how to organize the underclass.

At its height, Pullman employed 12,000 porters. What fascinated Tye was that so many of those porters’ grandchildren, nephews and nieces became stalwarts in the black middle class. Example: Thurgood Marshall, son of a train porter and a past railroad worker himself, who served as the plaintiff attorney in Brown v. Board of Education and later became the first black chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Pullman porters brought more than politics to black communities across the country. They also brought jazz and the blues out of the big cities, learned and passed on information from newspapers left by white passengers and were the unofficial distribution system for black newspapers.

Especially gratifying for Tye is the reaction to the book he’s seen from the Pullman porters themselves. In each city on his tour, Pullman porters have greeted him.

“When I was in Chicago, a 104-year-old porter came out. You know, it takes a lot to come out when you’re 104,” Tye said. “In Washington, I read at the Library of Congress. A Pullman porter who was there died three days later.

“Everyone likes to see themselves lionized,” he added. “These guys were afraid they were going to die without telling their stories. I promised I would write the book and do whatever I could to make sure their grandchildren knew what they did.”