Copyright The Washington Post Company Jul 11, 2004
Rising from the Rails: Pullman Porters and the Making of the Black Middle Class
by Nick Salvatore
In the 1933 film version of Eugene O’Neill’s play “The Emperor Jones,” Paul Robeson vividly portrayed the popular image of the black Pullman porter. At a church gathering, Robeson’s porter, who looks striking in his new Pullman dress uniform, receives congratulations from friends and neighbors as, bustling with importance, he rushes to meet his train. The reality was more complicated. In segregated America before 1960, porters — all of whom were black — made beds for white passengers on the nation’s sleeping cars, cleaned their clothes, shoes and spittoons as needed, and navigated a treacherous social climate where an unchecked response to the daily quota of racist attitudes could cost them their jobs, or worse. Little wonder that Malcolm X, who sold sandwiches on passenger trains in the 1940s, thought black porters and waiters were of necessity “both servants and psychologists.” Still, the work was steady and commanded a salary above what most other blacks, North or South, would ever earn.
This is the world that Larry Tye, a former reporter for the Boston Globe, explores in his new book. His interviews with a number of surviving porters (the Pullman Company ceased operations in 1968) provide a warm and, at times, intimate portrait of these men and their families as they struggled to balance financial rewards with the frequent assaults on dignity inherent in their work. In the process they built a union that defeated a major corporation and, from the beginning, supported civil rights efforts. These porters also created a unique communications system, carrying newspapers, magazines and word of political and cultural activities from one black community to another on their regular runs. Much of this story is not new — Tye relies on works by William H. Harris and Jervis Anderson, among others — but it remains a story well worth telling, and Tye presents it with stylistic grace.
Imposed upon the narrative, however, is a narrowly constructed, misleading analysis. Tye claims that the Pullman porter, understood collectively, was “the most influential black man in America,” more important than Booker T. Washington before his death in 1915 or even W.E.B. Du Bois across the six decades after 1900. He was the true instigator of the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott that sparked the civil rights movement, and one specific porter (E.D. Nixon) “tapped Martin Luther King Jr. to lead both.” Tye argues that porters achieved this singular impact on American history because their work provided them with the “chance to enter the cherished middle class” and to pass that status onto succeeding generations. Tye offers only anecdotal evidence for this last claim but is certain of its validity because Pullman porters “believed in higher education . . . and embraced the gospel of economic mobility.” These exaggerated claims allow Tye to present himself as a revisionist historian intent on restoring to porters their rightful place. In so doing, however, he unintentionally distorts that history by presenting porters apart from the intricate ties of church, social organizations and political struggles of black Americans in the pre-Montgomery years.
Pullman porters did occupy a valued economic position within black America, largely because they made more money than nearly 80 percent of working people in their communities, many of whom earned salaries at or below the poverty level. Had the porters been an actual middle class, they might have been able to generate the entrepreneurial activities that proved so important in providing jobs among immigrants, for example. Segregation, of course, prevented all but a very small black middle class from emerging before 1960. How, then, did these working-class porters embrace those “middle class” values of continued education and eventual mobility? Had Tye explored the porters’ roots in their local communities, he would have found that those values were never limited to the tiny middle class. Fraternal organizations embodied them, church groups sponsored literary and oratorical contests for youth, and a near-religious faith framed the hopes of many students and teachers as they toiled in their segregated schools. As important as the porters were in encouraging such efforts — they, too, were active in church and fraternal organizations — they were but part of a far broader movement that, between 1940 and 1980, resulted in a rise in black high school completion rates from 15 to almost 75 percent.
Tye’s more specific historical analysis is also questionable. He writes that E.D. Nixon, a porter for more than three decades, not only “tapped” King to lead the Montgomery boycott but that Nixon “had given birth” to the very notion of the boycott following the arrest of Rosa Parks. For good measure, Tye also suggests that, had Nixon’s work schedule not prevented him from attending a critical meeting, he would never have tapped King and instead would have become the boycott leader himself. This account is just wrong. Jo Ann Robinson and her Montgomery women’s political committee first proposed the boycott; Nixon faced serious opposition when mentioned as a potential leader; and King was, as Tye does note, a compromise candidate — at 26, too new to the city’s ministerial power struggles to have yet made enemies.
None of this in any way detracts from the role Nixon and other porters played in civil rights struggles. Rather, Tye’s one-dimensional focus on the porters blinds him to more complex understandings and ultimately does a disservice (however unintended) to the porters and their communities. The courage and commitment of the Pullman porters to creating justice and equality before the modern civil rights movement did not develop in isolation, but rather through struggles deeply grounded in black community life. From that broader perspective, a more informative portrait would have emerged of both the porters and of their importance in our national political culture.