For over a century, Pullman Porters served America’s railroad travelers. Pullman Porters were employed by the Chicago – based Pullman Company, established just after the Civil War by George M. Pullman. Pullman hired recently freed slaves, viewing them as a cheap and subservient labor source to attend guests on his sleeper cars. The Pullman Company employed over 7,500 African Americans at the height of its prosperity.
The life of a Pullman Porter was demanding. Porters catered to a cosmopolitan subset of the traveling public, offering an exacting level of service. Dressed in uniforms that matched the elegance of the Pullman cars’ furnishings, porters were expected to shine shoes; mend, iron, and fold clothes; mail passenger letters; clean bathrooms; and most importantly, prepare sleeper car beds each evening. For the Pullman Porter, achieving perfection in passenger service was necessary, not just to please managers, but to secure his main source of income: tips.
Pullman Porters were revered in their communities. Employment as a porter offered a social and economic mobility unavailable to most African Americans in the early 20th century. Most porters saved rigorously to provide education and opportunity for their children. In doing so, Pullman Porters established the foundation of a black middle class.
Despite their status, Pullman Porters were paid low wages and faced difficult working conditions. Verbal and physical abuse from managers and passengers was not uncommon, but subservience was expected and the threat of dismissal was ever present. These factors led Pullman Porters to organize. By 1925, labor leader A. Philip Randolph had helped to establish the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the most effective African American Federation of Labor, the first predominately African American union to do so.
After World War II, air travel gained popularity, and in 1969, the Pullman Company halted sleeper car service. The era of the Pullman Porter had come to an end, but its legacy lived on as many leaders of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters were propelled to significant roles in a larger struggle, the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. To this day, the Pullman Porter remains an iconic figure in American railroad history and a symbol of civil rights and social justice.
“Name any African – American who excelled in any field in the last half century…and there is an odds on chance that luminary had a Pullman Porter in his or her past.”
Rising from the Rails: Pullman Porters and the Making of the Black Middle Class by Larry Tye
The Pullman Porter
Resources and Links
Introducing The Pullman Porter
The Pullman Porter Backstory