The Men Aboard the Sleeping Car

By Lise Funderburg

August 8, 2004

RISING FROM THE RAILS: Pullman Porters and the Making of the Black Middle Class, by Larry Tye. Holt, 314 pp., $26.

Before automobiles and airplanes became America’s preferred transportation modes, Pullman railroad cars were the essence of luxury and speed. Named after their inventor, George Pullman, the cars debuted in the 1860s and were outfitted with crisp linens, bathrooms, adjacent dining cars and, most important, sharply uniformed male attendants trained to heed passengers’ every beck and call.

Those attendants were called Pullman porters, and their ranks were originally comprised of black men – more specifically, dark-skinned men from the South who Pullman knew would work for lesser wages than more employable light-skinned blacks and who would be unmistakably “other,” never to be confused with the white passengers.

This detail of Pullman’s hiring practices is one of numerous compelling facts and quirks chronicled by journalist Larry Tye in his solid history of the Pullman porter, “Rising From the Rails: Pullman Porters and the Making of the Black Middle Class.”

Tye gathered interviews from the swiftly diminishing ranks of porter retirees and offspring. He drew from Pullman company archives, mainstream and black-run newspapers, court records and broader historical accounts spanning from the Pullman cars’ inception to their demise in 1969, nearly 100 years later.

Tye’s portrait of the porter is rich, particularly as he details the terrific constraints put on the men by their employer, including the rule book they were expected not only to memorize and follow, but also to have on hand at all tunes – even those who couldn’t read.

Interviewees testify to the subjugating treatment and verbal abuses they were expected to withstand from customers. Company spies monitored the porters, posing as customers aboard the trains and welfare workers off, visiting porters’ homes and interviewing their spouses.

The work was grueling – porters went for days without being allowed to sleep and were expected to take on extra runs at lower rates of pay – but there were advantages that distinguished the porter’s life from that of most other African-Americans. The pay was relatively better than most employment available to blacks, and the job offered exposure to new worlds.

The men traveled from city to country, coast to coast, and Canada to Mexico. They became disseminators of news and culture to other African-Americans, picking up and passing along black and white newspapers and also collecting the latest recordings of jazz or swing music and often reselling it (as well as liquor during Prohibition) at their next stop.

At their peak in the 1920s, porters numbered just over 12,000 men, but Tye argues that their effect on their community reached much further. He lists those porters and dining car waiters who went on to fame, including civil rights leader E.D. Nixon, filmmaker Oscar Micheaux, poet Claude McKay, North Pole co-discoverer Matthew Henson and photographer and “Shaft” director Gordon Parks.

Where Tye’s book falters is in realizing its promise to show how porters were at the core of forming the country’s black middle class. That claim remains only anecdotally supported; in fact, the author more convincingly documents their causal role in the rise of the black labor movement once he introduces A. Philip Randolph, the man who would lead the porters’ union as well as the historic 1963 March on Washington.

Though Randolph himself never worked on the railroad, Tye points out in an extended biographical passage, the bookish preacher’s son took on the porters’ cause with passion, eventually earning the honorific “Chief” from members of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP) and “Mr. Black Labor” from news reporters.

The BSCP struggled. White unions shut them out, and George Pullman had staunchly opposed unionization or fair wages and working conditions for his black workers, as did his successor (who was, ironically, Abraham Lincoln’s son Robert Todd).

The company challenged all union activity, hiring replacement porters and dismissing those seen as union supporters. Filipino immigrants were introduced as porters in 1925, Tye writes, “two months after the Brotherhood was unveiled.”

“The Filipinos ‘not only made a natty appearance but scored a decided hit,’ the company’s Pullman News announced. It might also have added that these young, single Asian men shared many of the attributes that initially made Negroes so attractive to Pullman: a reputation for service, few job choices and a willingness to do whatever the company asked.” Randolph and the BSCP eventually won a place at the bargaining table, although well after the Pullman company had begun to decline.

Tye’s book is a valuable window into a long-underreported dimension of African-American history, and if the book falls short of fully demonstrating that the porter played the leading role in forming a black middle class in this country, he still clearly played a leading role.

Lise Funderburg’s grandfather worked his way through medical school as a Pullman Porter.