Boston Globe: Rising from the Rails

Boston Globe>

A quiet route to revolution
Pullman porters played role as ‘agents of change’
by James A. Miller

The subject of the 2002 made-for-cable film “10,000 Black Men Named George,” several important documentary films, oral histories, and a significant body of scholarship, the Pullman porter has come to occupy a central place in many accounts of the long struggle of the African-American community for social, economic, and political equality, from the aftermath of the Civil War through the heyday of the modern civil rights movement. And rightly so, for the Pullman porter effectively dramatized the contradictory status, the plight and the promise, the perils and the possibilities of black workers in post-Civil War America.

The porters were routinely called “George,” which signified that they were the collective namesakes of George Mortimer Pullman, the owner of the most luxurious railroad sleeping cars in the United States. Pullman shrewdly had seized the opportunity to hire newly emancipated slaves for this low-wage and demanding job and in the process made the Pullman Co. the largest single employer of black men by the 1920s. For many whites, the Pullman porter was an anonymous prop, an appendage to the luxury they had come to expect on the sleeping cars. As Larry Tye — a former longtime journalist for the Globe — aptly notes in “Rising From the Rails”: “He was an ex-slave who embodied servility more than humanity, an ever-obliging manservant with an ever-present smile who was there when a jacket needed dusting or a child tending or a beverage refreshing. . . . In his very anonymity lay his value.”

In spite of the onerous and degrading working conditions and routine humiliations that accompanied their jobs, Pullman porters were highly regarded and respectable figures in their communities. They were the bulwark, Tye argues, of what became today’s black middle class: “Behind almost every successful African-American, there is a Pullman porter.” That is a striking claim, since their total number never exceeded 12,000, fewer than half of whom signed on with the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters after it finally won its 12-year struggle to unionize in 1937.

Nonetheless, Pullman porters occupied a very high position in the social hierarchy of the black community — in itself a commentary on the paucity of social and economic opportunities available to blacks: “Pullman porters . . . climbed near the top of the Negro social ladder, to the same rung as head waiters in restaurants and barbers. Porters had dipped their toes in the Pacific and Atlantic, walked the promenades in New York City and Chicago. . . . What mattered back home was that many porters owned homes and cars, while most stayed groomed and sober, voted Republican, and were beacons of the church. Their skin remained black, but their tastes grew increasingly white and bourgeois, which in pre-World War I America was a measure of success. They were the aristocrats of Negro labor.”

Still, Tye is on very solid ground when he proposes that the story of the Pullman porter is a metaphor for the struggle for racial equality in America: “Behind the porter’s constant smile and courtly service lay a day-to-day struggle for dignity that anticipated black America’s bloody crawl toward equity. If race is the story of America, the Pullman porter represents one of its most resonant chapters.”

Tye depicts the struggle of the porters in heroic terms, casting them as the vanguard of a black community seeking to negotiate its relationship to an American society whose terms, rituals, and etiquette — at least in the decades following the Civil War — remained remote and unfamiliar: “Porters were agents of change. . . . They carried radical music like jazz and blues from big cities to outlying burgs. They brought seditious ideas about freedom and tolerance from the urban North to the segregated South. And when white riders left behind newspapers and magazines, porters picked up bits of news and new ways of doing things, refining them in each place they visited, and leaving behind a town or village that was a bit less insular and parochial.

“What they saw and read changed them, too. It made porters determined that their children would get the formal learning they had been denied. . . . Through their time on the train these black porters learned the ways of a white world most had only vague exposure to before, coming to know how it worked and how to work with it.”

Tye’s desire to place a human face on these workers is very much at the heart of “Rising From the Rails.” Drawing upon extensive and meticulous research — as well as in-depth interviews with 40 or so former porters and their families — he depicts the absorbing saga of the Pullman porter, a story firmly rooted in the dynamic growth of the American railroad in the years following the Civil War. It is a tale populated by larger-than-life figures like Pullman, the visionary and ruthless capitalist whose unconventional tactics and attitudes qualified him, in Tye’s view, as a racial “moderate if not a reformer”; Robert Todd Lincoln, the son of the Great Emancipator, who presided over an era marked by both unprecedented growth and labor repression at the Pullman Co.; and A. Philip Randolph, “Saint Philip,” the eminent and outspoken Socialist and labor leader who — along with Milton P. Webster, Ashley L. Totten, and C. L. Dellums — spearheaded the effort that led to the triumphant emergence of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in 1937.

The story does not end there, for Tye makes a compelling case for the intricate connections between the porters’ struggles for economic justice and the quickening pace of the civil rights movement in the 20th century — from the formation of the National Negro Congress in the mid-1930s to Randolph’s threatened 1941 march on Washington to the 1963 march on Washington, and beyond. Throughout, Tye sustains our interest, weaving together several levels of narrative while keeping the stories of ordinary porters squarely at the center. The result is a lively and engaging chronicle that adds yet another dimension to the historical record.

James A. Miller is a professor of English and American Studies and director of Africana Studies at George Washington University.