While the Pullman porters were held in high esteem in the black community, their historical legacy is often overlooked.
Chicago industrialist George Pullman began recruiting black men as porters on his new luxurious rail sleeper cars, which revolutionized train travel, just after the end of the Civil War. He was looking to hire men for his rolling hotels who were dignified and diligent, and who epitomized Pullman’s vision of safe, reliable and invisible servants. But the jobs came with a price. Historians note that for over a century, in the intimate confines of railcars that crisscrossed America, a Pullman porter had workloads lasting sometimes 400 hours per month and encountered indignities and outright humiliations from passengers. Most white customers called their porters “George” after Pullman, or simply “boy.”
For a time in the mid-20th century, more black American males worked for the railroads than anywhere else. The good pay and steady work made a Pullman uniform a status symbol for generations of African American families hoping to gain economic mobility. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and his father were both Pullman porters. So was the father of former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, as well as the father of Tom Bradley, the first black mayor of Los Angeles. Filmmaker Gordon Parks and activist Malcolm X also served as Pullman porters.
The porters were also inextricably linked to the union and civil rights movements. After contentious battles both within the black community and against management of the Pullman company, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, founded by A. Philip Randolph, won recognition in 1937 after a 12-year campaign. The union’s organizing slogan was “Fight or Be Slaves.”
In December 1955, when Rosa Parks refused to sit in the back of a Montgomery, Ala., municipal bus and was arrested, E.D. Nixon, a Pullman porter who headed the local branch of the NAACP, helped organize the pivotal Montgomery bus boycott. Randolph and one of his chief lieutenants, Bayard Rustin, were also the chief architects of the 1963 March on Washington. “They learned to organize by standing up for themselves and organizing a union,” Hughes said. “And perhaps unintentionally, they helped organize the civil rights movement, too.”
The porters disappeared in the 1970s when Amtrak took over the trains and porters became “attendants.” “The white people they hired didn’t want to be called ‘porter’ and they didn’t want to wear the uniform,” Walker explained.
But to train buffs like Brian Rosenwald, who used to hang out in Chicago’s Union Station as a teen and now is the chief of product management for Amtrak, the contribution of the Pullman porters remains vivid.
“You know it’s just cold steel,” Rosenwald said. “But these men gave the trains their soul.”
Michael Zielenziger is a writer based in Oakland, Calif.