Pullman Porters – America’s First Black Union (#2)

By Jordan Duncan

The late 19th and early 20th century saw African Americans start to make small strides towards living reasonable lives in America. Following emancipation (the Reconstruction era), many had jobs (albeit exploitative) in sharecropping, cottage tenancy, non-agricultural domestic work, work in industries that had reopened after war, and railroad/construction work. This is a significant time in African American history, as it was blacks’ first opportunity to gain footing in a nation they had helped build. The turn of the century, 1870-1910 specifically, saw the literacy rate of black Southerners increase from 19 to 61 percent (Pittman). While barriers still existed between blacks and full prosperity, progress was being made in some aspects of life, and blacks found themselves to be a bigger part of society than they had ever been.

Around this same time, a Chicagoan named George Pullman was revolutionizing one of society’s most important services – railroad travel. In the 1860s Pullman developed the Pullman Palace Car Co., which provided train passengers with clean, comfortable cars and numerous amenities. Essentially Pullman sought to create a hotel on wheels. The use of Pullman’s cars to transport President Abraham Lincoln’s body following his assassination helped to solidify the company’s legitimacy: “The Pioneer was the first, truly grand car that Pullman created. It was built in 1865 … When President Lincoln died, Colonel James H. Bowen, chairman of the Republican State Central Committee chose the Pioneer as a fitting part of the funeral cortege … This was a tremendous publicity boon for Pullman’s company” (“The Pullman Company,” www.pullman-museum.org). By 1875, Pullman’s business model had grown to be quite successful and the company was leasing cars to railroads across the nation.

Creating a hotel on wheels meant incorporating all elements of a hotel stay into a sleeping car train ride. This did not exclude maids and servants to acquiesce to the needs of (mostly white) customers. George Pullman sought out recently freed slaves to accomplish this. He knew that they were highly trained, highly skilled workers who were used to taking orders, following commands and appeasing to others. All of that coupled with their willingness to work for low wages made them perfect candidates to be porters on Pullman’s cars. Being a Pullman porter presented blacks with a familiar catch-22 of sorts where the occupation provided what seemed to be small benefits while ultimately keeping them from receiving fair compensation. The rise of Pullman’s company, which was headquartered in Chicago, coincided with the Great Migration – the Pullman Palace Car Co. was one of the many Northern industries blacks were attracted to:

Work in railroad yards, steel mills, food processing plants, garment shops, and other industries paid wages far beyond what was available in the rural or urban South. But it was more than the money … These jobs also represented portals into the industrial economy … Approximately 500,000 black Southerners moved between 1916 and 1919, with twice that many following during the 1920s. (Kelley & Lewis, 386)

While it might be a stretch to say that Pullman porters worked in conditions reminiscent of slavery, they were undoubtedly victims of a severely unjust system. According to Lucy Kinsella, author of “Pullman Porters: from Servitude to Civil Rights,” “Pullman demanded 400 hours a month or 11,000 miles – sometimes as much as 20 hours at a stretch – and paid ridiculously low wages (in 1926, an average of $810 per year – about $7,500 in today’s economy).” Included in the Kinsella piece is a quote from former Pullman porter Greg Leroy:

A Pullman Porter was really kind of a glorified hotel maid and bellhop in what Pullman called a hotel on wheels … The Pullman Company just thought of the porters as a piece of equipment, just like another button on a panel – the same as a light switch or a fan switch.

Pullman porters made most of their living though the tips they received as their salaries were not enough to subsist. But tips were fluid – these were black men, some of them former slaves, at the whim of white passengers who expected these blacks to serve them, during what was arguably height of racial tension and violence in America:

“It didn’t pay a livable wage, but they made a living with the tips that they got, because the salary was nothing,” says Lyn Hughes of the A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum. The company expected its employees to pay for their own meals, supply their own uniforms and shoe polish, and allowed them only short naps on couches in the smoking car. (Kinsella)

In some respects, being a Pullman porter was no different than any other post-slavery black occupation in that exploitation was the norm and working conditions were less than desirable.

However, Pullman porters were considered by many other blacks with less glamorous jobs to be in enviable positions. They might have been underpaid, overworked and horribly mistreated on the job, but Pullman porters benefitted from having privileges that others did not. They were able to travel around the country, received a steady (even if low) income, and what made their job especially unique was that it did not involve extreme physical labor. According to historian Timuel Black, “They were good looking, clean and immaculate in their dress, their style was quite manly, their language was very carefully crafted, so that they had a sense of intelligence about them … they were good role models for young men” (Kinsella). Movie stars such as Mae West, Jackie Gleason and Joan Crawford often rode Pullman sleeping cars – the chance of getting big tips made these cherished rides for the porters.

But this status among their own race was not enough to outweigh the suffering and exploitation suffered at the hands of the Pullman Company. In 1925 the porters formed The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first official black union in American history. They fought for 12 years to secure fair pay, better working conditions and job security. The union sought the support of middle class blacks “because of [their] great influence in the black press and with public opinion” (Wormser). However, there was some conflict between the union and the rest of the black community over what was best for black workers, and the Brotherhood’s future was briefly in jeopardy. Laws passed by Congress helped their cause and eventually they came out on the right side of things:

Congress passed federal laws guaranteeing the right of all legitimate unions to organize workers without interference from their employers, giving the union a new life … In addition, the major labor organization in the United States, the American Federation of Labor (AFL), which had traditionally excluded blacks from its membership-now gave the Brotherhood support. As a result, in 1937, the Pullman Company finally signed a labor agreement with the Brotherhood. (Wormser)

I wanted to research and write aboScreenshot (3)ut the Pullman porters because my late, great-great uncle, Herman Simmons, was a porter in the 40s and 50s. Originally from Louisiana, he lived and worked as a porter in Oakland, California and regularly made trips to Chicago. My artifact is a photo of him and his wife in the book “The Pullman Porters and West Oakland” by Thomas and Wilma Tramble, which is composed of photos and information about porters in the city. You can see how it mentions the “above-average incomes of the porters,” which is deceptive because it might have been above average compared to other blacks, but definitely not fair when compared to their white counterparts.

In some ways, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters laid the foundation for the civil rights movement that took place some 30 years later. A valiant group of blacks going against a major corporation was already unheard of – the fact that they came out victorious makes them one of the most influential and yet underappreciated factions in African American societal history. I think they created a reference point to which civil rights groups could look for reassurance that there was hope, and that eventually the leaders of the country would come around and make some compromises.

Works Cited

Kinsella, Lucy. “Pullman Porters: From Servitude to Civil Rights.” WTTW. WTTW Chicago Public Media, n.d. Web. 8 Dec. 2015. <http://www.wttw.com/main.taf?p=1,7,1,1,41&gt;.

Pittman, LaShawnDa. (2015). “The Urbanization of a Rural People.” University of Washington. [Powerpoint slides]. Lecture.

“The Pullman Company.” The Pullman State Historic Site. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 Dec. 2015. <http://www.pullman-museum.org/theCompany/&gt;.

Kelley, Robin D. G, and Earl Lewis. To Make Our World Anew: A History of African Americans. “A Chance to Make Good.” Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. Print.

Wormser, Richard. “Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.” The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow. PBS, 2002. Web. 08 Dec. 2015. <http://www.pbs.org/wnet/jimcrow/stories_org_brother.html&gt;.

Tramble, Thomas, and Wilma Tramble. The Pullman Porters and West Oakland. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Pub., 2007. Print.

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