Jim Crow Museum
1010 Campus Drive
Big Rapids, MI 49307
Q: I've always been fascinated with the Pullman Porters, but that had to be a hard job.
Can you tell me more about them that I can share with my students?
~ Kathy H.
Grand Rapids, Michigan
A: After the Civil War, Chicago businessman George Pullman began hiring thousands of African American men, including many formerly enslaved people, to serve white passengers traveling across the country on his company’s luxury sleeping cars. The railroad sleeping car was developed during the industrial revolution and its popularity led to many advances in the transportation industry. The need for labor created employment opportunities for African Americans and the first Pullman porters began working on the trains around 1867, quickly becoming a fixture of the company’s travel experience. The men worked long hours in passenger cars that they were not allowed to travel in due to Jim Crow segregation laws.
The Pullman Palace Car Company built, owned, and operated the majority of luxury rail cars. These opulent trains were dubbed “hotels on wheels” because passengers could engage in social activities in the lounge cars, have meals in the dining cars, and rest comfortably in the sleeping cars. Pullman was open about his reasons for hiring Black porters; he reasoned that formerly enslaved people would best anticipate and cater to his customers’ needs and would work long hours for cheap wages. By the 1920s, 20,224 African Americans were working as Pullman porters and train personnel. This was the largest category of Black labor in the United States and Canada at the time.
While they were underpaid, overworked, and endured constant racism, Pullman porters helped fuel the Great Migration, shaped the Black middle class, and laid groundwork for the Civil Rights movement. Their job duties included carrying baggage, shining shoes, setting up and cleaning the sleeping berths, and serving passengers food and drink. In some cases, they were required to sing and dance for customers. Porters endured long hours, with passengers frequently boarding and de-training at stations throughout the night. Porters were required to work 400 hours or 11,000 miles per month (whichever came first) to receive their full salary. Porters relied on tips to make a decent wage, which were often exceeded their salaries from the Pullman Company. To earn the monthly 400-hours could require working shifts up to 20-hours long with only a few hours of sleep in between. The workers also had to pay for their food, do unpaid prep and breakdown duties, and buy their uniforms.
Porters were at the beck and call of the passengers and were under constant scrutiny, expected to give service with a smile, but not so friendly that they may be accused of impropriety or disingenuous conduct. Passengers used the derogatory terms “boy” (hailing from enslavement) or “George” (after the founder George Pullman) instead of the porter’s names, exerting power and a sense of ownership over the men. Despite routine discrimination, Pullman porters were well-traveled, knowledgeable, and had regular contact with politicians and other wealthy clients; they had their finger on the pulse of what American society was thinking and doing.
Porters regularly traversed the country and transported the news and other sources of vital information to African American communities. The Pullman porters had an alliance with five prominent African American newspapers from 1914 to 1939: the Baltimore Afro-American, Chicago Defender, New York Age, New York Amsterdam News, and Pittsburgh Courier. The Western Appeal (later changed to The Appeal) out of St. Paul, Minnesota was one of the first newspapers to report on the Pullman porters. The Appeal became the official publication of the United Brotherhood of Railway Porters. Its editor Roy Wilkins worked with A. Philip Randolph, leader of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP), and Arnold Aronson, leader of the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, to form the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights.
The porters organized and founded the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in 1925 with A. Philip Randolph. The BSCP was the first African American labor union to sign a collective bargaining agreement with a major corporation. Randolph was a labor rights advocate who fought to improve the working conditions and salaries for the porters. The union included lesser-known Pullman workers, female maids, who were also required to babysit white children on the passenger trains. The BSCP faced staunch opposition from the Pullman Company and it took more than a decade for the union to sign a labor agreement. In 1937, after 12 years of resistance and negotiations, the BSCP was recognized as the official union of the Pullman porters. Their victory helped to lay the foundation for the united efforts of Black workers and labor unions during the Civil Rights movement.
Jim Crow Musuem
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