‘The most influential Black man in America for the hundred years following the Civil War was a figure no one knew,” writes author Larry Tye in his eye-opening 2004 book, Rising from the Rails: Pullman Porters and the Making of the Black Middle Class.
I’d argue people still don’t know. Not like they should, considering what the porters meant to Black history, to labor history … to American history.
They were the Black men (and they were virtually all men), who from the late 1800s to the mid-20th century, worked on the passenger trains that were as ubiquitous as today’s airplanes. They were the 19th- and 20th-century equivalent of flight attendants. They babysat, shined shoes, cleaned up after drunken passengers, made beds with military precision, dusted jackets and did a million other things for mostly white patrons who often called them “George.”
George Pullman founded the Pullman Car Company, which had a monopoly on the building of luxury railroad cars, also called “sleepers,” that most Americans crisscrossed the country in before airplanes. Pullman was the United Airlines of its day, but only more powerful and with greater market share.
Pullman porters, the men George Pullman hired to work on his trains, were “not expected to have human proportions,” were “phantom assistants” who, like slaves, “did not merit the dignity of a name or identity of any sort,” who “embodied servility more than humanity,” who was expected to be “an ever-obliging manservant with an ever-present smile” who was there at white passengers’ beck and call (the sleepers were segregated, their benefits largely off-limits to Blacks).
In the eyes of white travelers, porters took on their master’s name, which became so ubiquitous in the company’s heyday that famous whites named George took offense that their name was associated with these black servant-slaves.
The white men named George, Tye writes, were so annoyed that they formed the Society for the Prevention of Calling Sleeping Car Porters George, SPCSCPG for short, “which eventually claimed thirty-one thousand members, including England’s King George V, George Herman “Babe” Ruth, George M. Cohan, and Georges Clemenceau of France.”
But Pullman porters pushed on, with silent dignity, brutal cunning and courage. Their tale is emblematic of the Black struggle in the United States, which the New York columnist Murray Kempton brilliantly captured in a line that Tye shares in his book:
“It is a measure of the Negro’s circumstance that, in America, the smallest things usually take him so very long, and that, by the time he wins them, they are no longer little things: they are miracles.”
In their own communities, the steady pay and the cosmopolitan sensibility that was a byproduct of their travels made Pullman porters as prestigious as doctors, lawyers and teachers.
But they were among the lowest-paid railroad workers and were subjected daily to myriad indignities, like being called “George” or “boy,” sometimes by whites half their age.
In 1925, when “five lonely Pullman porters plotting to launch a union” tapped a struggling, 36-year-old activist whose time “appeared to have passed” to lead their union, the Pullman company had been in existence for over 60 years.
Asa Philip Randolph, the new head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, was a brilliant communicator and competent organizer.
“We used the word Brotherhood for its psychological organization effect,” Randolph recalled. “The purpose was to get the men convinced of the fact that they were brothers and have a common interest, each one, in helping make it possible for all porters to have a better life.”
The Brotherhood’s, and the porters’, effect was more than psychological. Even before they formed a union, porters wielded massive influence in popular culture and in the Black community.
For instance, countless southern Blacks were persuaded to head north after World War I by reading copies of the Chicago Defender newspaper that porters smuggled to rural black enclaves.
And many of those porters, before they unionized, were often the single, most influential member of their families and communities. As Tye convincingly argues, name a prominent African American and it’s likely that they were either porters themselves or have a porter as a relative.
It’s probably not an overstatement to say that the Black middle class was built on the backs of Pullman porters. They virtually bankrolled and provided the organizational infrastructure of the modern Civil Rights movement.
Twelve years after they were founded, and nearly two decades before Martin Luther King Jr. became the figurehead of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, A. Philip Randolph and his Brotherhood “signed its first contract with the Pullman Company,” Tye writes.
The NAACP explained in 1937 within its magazine, The Crisis, that the labor contract “undoubtedly marks the first time that an all-Negro union has signed a contract with one of America’s largest industrial organizations; this is the first time that Negroes have contributed so much of their own pennies (some million and one-half dollars) to push a fight for economic betterment; this is the first time they have stuck together so long in a struggle in which there were so many odds against them; this is the first time that so important a step forward has been made under entirely Negro leadership.”
And, as Tye notes, that was “just the beginning of the list of ‘firsts.’” The porters were also the first labor organization “of any color to displace a company union” (the Pullman Company had created its own union in order to placate porters before the Brotherhood was formed).
The Brotherhood was the “first Black union admitted as a full-fledged member of the AFL [the American Federation of Labor] and the most successful Black union ever.” In 1968, a Pullman porter, Earl A. Love, launched against Pullman Company what may have been the first national class-action lawsuit. And the list can be added to.
Randolph’s success with the Brotherhood catapulted him to national prominence. He’d use his leverage to threaten President Franklin D. Roosevelt with a March on Washington if he didn’t do anything about discrimination in the defense industries during World War II.
At first Roosevelt refused. Randolph doubled down. Fiorello La Guardia, the mayor of New York City at the time, brokered a compromise between the two head-strong leaders that resulted in Roosevelt signing Executive Order 8802 on June 25, 1941, “just six days before the march was due to be held.”
The order stated that “there shall be no discrimination in the employment of workers in defense industries or government because of race, color, or national origin.”
Fourteen years later, Edgar D. Nixon — the “son of an Alabama sharecropper,” “past president of the Montgomery and Alabama branches of the NAACP, which he helped found, and the current president of the Progressive Democratic Association” — was up early, making phone calls.
He called Rev. Ralph D. Abernathy first, then Rev. H.H. Hubbard. They both agreed. Then he called a little-known preacher of a prominent Montgomery church, who needed time to think about what Nixon was asking him.
“‘Yeah, Brother Nixon, I’ll go along with it,’” the preacher eventually relented. Nixon told him, “I’m glad of that, Reverend King, because I talked to 18 other people, I told them to meet at your church at three o’clock.”
They met to talk about a strategy to desegregate Montgomery’s buses. A day earlier, on Dec. 2, 1955, Rosa Parks, then a member of the NAACP, had been arrested. Nixon wanted King to lead the movement that would galvanize around Parks’ arrest and pressure the city to desegregate the buses.
King was pastor of the “wealthiest and most influential Black church in Montgomery, he had not been in town long enough to make enemies, and he was almost as eloquent as Nixon’s mentor, A. Philip Randolph.”
Nixon, as Tye writes, would’ve been the “obvious choice to have presided over that first meeting and the wider boycott, as King himself said afterward.” But Nixon couldn’t. He was too busy with his day job — as a Pullman porter.