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Ironically, the position of Pullman porter, which was designed to capitalize on the legacy of slavery, instead became the catalyst for both the formation of an African American middle class and the first major African American labor union (the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters). In addition it was linked to the emergence of the U.S. civil rights movement in the twentieth century.
At the end of the Civil War, the Pullman Sleeping Car transformed travel in the United States. Though sleeping cars on trains had been used before, the Pullman was the first comfortable, indeed luxurious, sleeping car, and it ushered in a new era of comfortable cross-country train travel. The job of the Pullman porter included loading and unloading passengers and their luggage, keeping toilet and general-use areas and cabins clean, and turning down and putting up the folding upper and lower beds. The porter also took care of patrons’ personal needs, such as boxing ladies’ hats, sending letters and telegrams, setting up card tables, stocking coolers with ice, serving food and drinks in the dining car, and selling cigarettes, candy, and playing cards. When necessary he also took on the chores of the conductor, though he was never paid a conductor’s wages. For many years porters were on call twenty-four hours. As envisioned by founder George Pullman (1831–1897), the porter’s role was to supply the average traveler with the luxury of a servant for the duration of the trip. Pullman specifically modeled the Pullman porter after the plantation house servant, and he intended the jobs to be filled by the recently freed slaves.
The Pullman Company, headquartered just outside Chicago, quickly became the largest single employer of African Americans, and Pullman porter positions were among the most prestigious jobs available to them. However, the wages and working conditions were poor compared to those of white Americans. Porters represented the first foray for African Americans into the middle class, but this was due more to the perceived prestige of the position and the experience of being well traveled than to the economic gains. That said, many of the Pullman porters were highly educated. Nonetheless, this was the best employment they could obtain in Jim Crow–era America, and the company kept porter hours long and wages low, forcing them to rely upon tips as a significant part of their income. Until the formation of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP) in 1925, porters were never paid more than office boys, the lowest ranking white employees.
In a degrading act of racism, whites routinely called all porters “George” after George Pullman, following an older racist custom of naming slaves after their masters. The Society for the Prevention of Calling Sleeping Car Porters “George” (SPCSCPG) was formed in 1916 to promote the elimination of the practice. The SPCSCPG lasted until 1941 and at its peak counted more than 31,000 members, including George Herman “Babe” Ruth and King George V. Although the SPCSCPG ostensibly was formed to eliminate a racist practice stemming from the slavery era, some scholars speculate that the society was formed as a way for white railway workers and frequent Pullman passengers to distance themselves from the African American Pullman porters.
In 1925 the Pullman porters formed the BSCP and chose A. Philip Randolph (1889–1979), the well-educated editor of Harlem’s Messenger Magazine, as president. Randolph had never been employed as a porter and therefore could not be disciplined by the Pullman Company. Hence Randolph maintained complete control of the direction of BSCP throughout his long tenure as the organization’s president and relied on his regional delegates, most notably Milton P. Webster of the Chicago chapter, to maintain the day-to-day activities of the union.
The most important issues for Randolph and the BSCP in the early years were to win recognition of the BSCP as the sole authorized representatives of the Pullman porters and then to deal with the industry’s split labor market that placed African Americans in lower-paying positions or paid them less even when they were doing the same work as whites, such as conductor duties. After a long and contentious fight, the first goal was accomplished, and progress was made toward achieving the second goal.
The Pullman Company and other employers of the period were not alone in their determination to protect the split labor market. Labor unions were unwilling to embrace African Americans, typically seeing them as competitors rather than allies. However, by 1929 the BSCP was admitted into the American Federation of Labor (AFL). Randolph used his position in the AFL to push for greater acceptance of minority workers by stressing the common economic goals of workers rather than racial differences, and he was instrumental in gaining wider acceptance of African Americans in many industries.
In 1941 Randolph and other BSCP organizers called for African Americans to march on Washington, D.C., to protest racial discrimination in the defense industries. Randolph decided that the march had to be an African Americans–only protest, not to distance African Americans from supportive whites but to establish African American control over their own destinies. Once it became obvious to President Franklin D. Roosevelt that Randolph had succeeded in effectively organizing a massive protest, he signed Executive Order 8802, the Fair Employment Act (1941), which prohibited defense and other governmentrelated industries from discriminating against African Americans. Although this order carried no punitive measures for those who did not comply, it officially acknowledged the need for the government to address racial issues. Randolph called off the march on Washington, but the group continued to work on civil rights issues.
In 1982 Jack Santino produced and directed Miles of Smiles, Years of Struggle: The Untold Story of the Black Pullman Porter, a documentary chronicling the organization of the BSCP and the impact this group had on the U.S. civil rights movement. In 1983 Santino followed up with a striking article in the Journal of American Folklore that documented through oral history the racial stereotypes, racial violence, and other forms of racial discrimination faced by African American porters, who were by then in their eighties and nineties. Interestingly many of the instances of racism and abuse discussed by the former porters occurred long after the formation of the BSCP.
- Bates, Beth Thompkins. 2001. Pullman Porters and the Rise of Protest Politics in Black America, 1925–1945. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
- Calliste, Agnes. 1995. The Struggles for Employment Equity by Blacks on American and Canadian Railroads. Journal of Black Studies 25: 297–317.
- Harris, William H. 1979. A. Philip Randolph as a Charismatic Leader, 1925–1941. Journal of Negro History 64: 301–315.
- Santino, Jack. 1982. Miles of Smiles, Years of Struggle: The Untold Story of the Black Pullman Porter. San Francisco: California
- Santino, Jack. 1983. Miles of Smiles, Years of Struggle: The Negotiation of Black Occupational Identity through Personal Experience Narrative. Journal of American Folklore 96 (382): 393–412.
- Valien, Preston. 1940. The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Phylon 1: 224–238.
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