Charlotte Observer: Rising from the Rails

Charlotte Observer

The story of Pullman Porters’ pride, plight
by Barbara Bamberger Scott
August 1, 2004

Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man chats with a Pullman porter in Harlem, who tells him, “I’m in New York, New York ain’t in me, understand what I mean. Don’t git corrupted.”

This encapsulates the ethos of the black men who cleaned the cars and cosseted the white passengers, took pride in the sparkling uniform, enjoyed the status they held back in the ghetto and learned to endure the humiliations they faced as just another “George.”

Their story is told in fine fashion by Larry Tye in his new book “Rising from the Rails.”

George Pullman was an entrepreneurial genius who realized the ordinary traveler would pay well, and the rich even more, to sleep comfortably on trains. And what better servant to all classes of white people than the darkest-skinned Negroes (so they’d never be mistaken for a passenger) in military dress?

In the beginning porters were freed slaves who would accept hard work, long hours and low pay with habitual politeness. A man tall enough, black enough and who had the $17 necessary to buy his first uniform could get on board.

Though respected in their own communities, porters were often mistreated by haughty travelers. But the tips were serious compensation. A good porter might get anything from a few dimes to hundreds of dollars.

According to Pullman porter legend as reported by Tye, baseball players were cheapskates, Jack Benny lived up to his miserly reputation, and Ronald Reagan was “cheapest of them all.” A porter named Babe Smock was tricked into caring for a demanding heiress, Mrs. H.J. Heinz (“wrap my coat in cloth … bring me twenty towels”) and to his frustration got no tip. But a month later Babe’s wife phoned to say that a truck had arrived with all of Heinz’s 57 varieties of canned goods.

Porters used their wages to put their children, or themselves, through college. Used to scrimping, they packed lunches and collected newspapers and books left by passengers, passing them down the line.

By the mid 1920s, porters got militant. Led by the charismatic A. Phillip Randolph, they organized into a brotherhood. From coast to coast, they distributed their radical newspaper and drummed up support. Eventually the union won higher wages and the right to sleep at least three hours a night.

After World War II, the Pullman tradition, like train travel itself, foundered. But though they never constituted more than a minuscule portion of the black work force, the porters had made a difference. Their legacy was in their creed: work hard, demand respect, organize, spread the wealth.