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Pullman Porters: Opportunity

November 22, 2017

Mae Gilliland Wright, PhD

The NRRHoF is creating a series of blog posts during the month of November titled “Take This Hammer: Stories of African American Railroaders.” Our blogs will be part of a year-long worldwide celebration of the opening of the

Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture called Lift Every Voice.

The Emancipation Act, signed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863, changed the status of millions of enslaved people. African Americans who had lived as slaves entered the workforce, though at a significant disadvantage. The few who had any formal education still experienced discrimination, leaving very few—if any—employment opportunities.


George M. Pullman (read his NRRHOF inductee bio here) developed and constructed elegant sleeping cars in the early 1860s. Beginning in 1868, Pullman hired African Americans to work as servants to his clientele. These porters would come to have a lasting impact. Lyn Hughes, author of “An Anthology of Respect: The Pullman Porter,” explains: “For it is within this group where the first black union was formed, the idea of the march on Washington was hatched, and the second civil rights movement was accelerated.”[1]


Although these men and the Pullman maids contributed to the establishment of an African American middle class in America, porters were paid poorly and often mistreated. Porters had to work at least 400 hours or travel 11,000 miles per month in order to receive full pay. All porters were called “George,” and Pullman even required that porters smile whenever they encountered passengers.[2] Still, even under these conditions, as Thomas and Wilma Tramble point out in “Images of America: The Pullman Porters and West Oakland,” Pullman Porters’ working conditions were better than those of southern sharecroppers or northern domestics.[3] The job was a source of pride.

By the 1920s, there were over 20,000 African American Pullman Porters, which made it one of the largest categories of employment for non-white European workers. However, after World War II, the number of passenger trains declined. By the 1960s, railroads were slashing passenger and dining service.[4] As Tehodore Kornweibel notes in “Railroads in the African American Experience”:

“Today, Amtrak’s waiters and stewards are female as well as male and from all ethnic backgrounds. The reasons why generations of African Americans became dining- and lounge-car waiters—particularly, the paucity of good-paying jobs for educated black men—thankfully no longer exist.”


We close with a description of the Pullman experience from an 1869 Sacramento Daily Bee article… all made possible by the Pullman porters and maids.


The following Daily Bee excerpts are from pages 11-12 of Logan S. Garner's book Capitol Life: Sacramento, California. August 19, 1868 - January 20, 1867 (Grand Junction, Co.: Monte Vista Publishing, LLC., 2005). 


On June 10th, 1869, two Pullman Company cars arrived in Sacramento: 


"There arrived here, last evening, about 7 o'clock, the Locomotive Phil. Sheridan, having in tow the Pullman Dining Car, International, and the Pullman Palace Sleeping Car, Pennsylvania. Of course the two cars were and still are objects of great attraction, as they deserve to be. The exterior of the dining car is wood stained in imitation of mahogany, whilst on the panes of glass are representations of fish, flesh, fowl, etc., etc. It sets on sixteen wheels, and has the latest new style patent breaks. The car is in size ten feet by sixty."


As the reporter continues, he notes that up to forty-eight people can eat within the dinging room at the same time. What were they eating? The reporter lists the menu items in wonderful detail:


"Bills of fare are provided, and the traveler can be served with hot dishes as varied and as well-cooked as at the best hotels in the land. On the bill of fare you may read - "Soup tomato; fish boiled mackerel, trout, London club; roast turkey, cranberry sauce; lamb, mint sauce; roast beef with horse radish; boiled corn beef and ham; entries, etc., etc.,; pastry, puddings, fruit and tea and coffee."


Sounds pretty familiar, doesn't it? Tomato soup, roast turkey and cranberry sauce... and a bit of coffee to chase the cocktails you had earlier. What is magnificent, of course, is that this was all taking place on a train that was traveling across the country. It was both the height of luxury and technology.


As if anticipating questions from the readers, the author assures them that the ride would be smooth enough to avoid any embarrassing messes:


"The coffee does not slop over, the milk does not get into the saltcellars, the salt does not embrace the ice-cream, nor does the Worcestershire sauce come in too close proximity with the horseradish."


We are especially relieved to hear about that last one!


In a later Daily Bee article, published Friday, June 18, 1869, under "LOCAL NEWS," the reporter explained how the food was cooked and kept fresh:


"The railroad kitchen is a model of space-economizing ingenuity. Charcoal only is used for fire. Beneath the kitchen and extending all the way across the car is an iron cellar divided into two compartments, where the meats, butter, milk, etc. are kept in ice so that even in crossing the American plains fresh fish and other luxuries can be served up daily or hourly to those who want them and will pay therefor."




Sources and further reading:

[1] Hughes, Lyn. "An Anthology of Respect: The Pullman Porters." Hughes Peterson Publishing, Chicago: 2009. Introduction.

[2] Hughes, Lyn. Page 14.

[3] Tramble, Thomas and Wilma. “Images of America: The Pullman Porters and West Oakland.” Arcadia Publishing, San Francisco: 2007. Page 21.

[4] Kornweibel, Theodore. “Railroads in the African American Experience.” The John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore: 2010. Page 159.

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