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Rising from the Rails: Pullman Porters and the Making of the Black Middle Class

Rising from the Rails: Pullman Porters and the Making of the Black Middle Class

by Larry Tye

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"A valuable window into a long-underreported dimension of African American history."—Newsday

An engaging social history that reveals the critical role Pullman porters played in the struggle for African American civil rights

When George Pullman began recruiting Southern blacks as porters in his luxurious new sleeping cars, the former slaves suffering under Jim Crow laws found his offer of a steady job and worldly experience irresistible. They quickly signed up to serve as maid, waiter, concierge, nanny, and occasionally doctor and undertaker to cars full of white passengers, making the Pullman Company the largest employer of African American men in the country by the 1920s.

In the world of the Pullman sleeping car, where whites and blacks lived in close proximity, porters developed a unique culture marked by idiosyncratic language, railroad lore, and shared experience. They called difficult passengers "Mister Charlie"; exchanged stories about Daddy Jim, the legendary first Pullman porter; and learned to distinguish generous tippers such as Humphrey Bogart from skinflints like Babe Ruth. At the same time, they played important social, political, and economic roles, carrying jazz and blues to outlying areas, forming America's first black trade union, and acting as forerunners of the modern black middle class by virtue of their social position and income.

Drawing on extensive interviews with dozens of porters and their descendants, Larry Tye reconstructs the complicated world of the Pullman porter and the vital cultural, political, and economic roles they played as forerunners of the modern black middle class. Rising from the Rails provides a lively and enlightening look at this important social phenomenon.

• Named a Recommended Book by The Boston Globe, San Francisco Chronicle, and The Seattle Times

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781466818750
Publisher: Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
Publication date: 06/01/2005
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 305,508
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Larry Tye was a longtime journalist for the The Boston Globe, winning numerous awards for his work. A former Nieman Fellow at Harvard University, he is the author of The Father of Spin and Home Lands. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Larry Tye was a longtime journalist for the The Boston Globe, winning numerous awards for his work. A former Nieman Fellow at Harvard University, he is the author of The Father of Spin and Home Lands. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Read an Excerpt


Pullman Porters and the Making of the Black Middle Class

Henry Holt and Company

Copyright © 2004 Larry Tye
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-8050-7075-3

Chapter One

Out of Bondage,

All Aboard

* * *

HE WAS A black man in a white jacket and sable hat. Having stepped out of the cotton fields barely two years before, he now was stepping onto one of the locomotives that had long symbolized freedom to slavehands across America. He lit candles that illuminated the passenger carriage, stoked the pot-bellied Baker Heater, and turned down hinged berths that magically transformed the day coach into an overnight compartment. He was part chambermaid, part valet, shining shoes, nursing hangovers, tempering tempers, and performing other tasks that won tips and made him indispensable to the wealthy white travelers who snapped their fingers in the air when they needed him. It was the only real traveling he would ever do.

That much is known about the first porter to work on George Mortimer Pullman's railroad sleeping cars. What is not known is his name, age, birthplace, date of employment, or just about anything else about him. Historians will say the reason is that a fire in Chicago destroyed the early archives of the Pullman Company. But, curiously, it didn't destroy the names of those first two primitive Pullman cars back in 1859, remodeled day coaches 9 and 19 of the Chicago, Alton & St. Louis Railroad, or the provenance of the first three paying passengers, all from Bloomington, Illinois. Or even the name of the original conductor, Jonathan L. Barnes, who like all conductors was white and whose narrative is preserved in telling detail.

The pioneering porter, in fact, was not expected to have human proportions at all, certainly none worthy of documenting. He was a phantom assistant who did not merit the dignity of a name or identity of any sort. That is precisely why George Pullman hired him. He was an ex-slave who embodied servility more than humanity, an ever-obliging manservant with an ever-present smile who was there when a jacket needed dusting or a child tending or a beverage refreshing. Few inquired where he came from or wanted to hear about his struggle. In his very anonymity lay his value.

And so it was that the polished passengers who rode the plush velvet-appointed night coaches over the first half century of Pullman Palace Car service summoned him with a simple "porter." The less polite hailed him with "boy" or, more often, "George." The latter appellation was born in the practice of slaves being named after slavemasters, in this case porters being seen as servants of George Pullman. It stuck because it was repeated instinctively by successive generations of passengers, especially those below the Mason-Dixon Line, and by caricaturists, comedians, and newspaper columnists. If the more socially conscious among riders perceived the grim irony of the moniker, they did not say so publicly. They certainly did not object. The only ones who protested, at first, were white men named George. They were sufficiently annoyed by the slight, or more probably amused, that they founded 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.

Whether George Pullman knew his passengers were calling his porters "George" is unclear. That he would not have cared is certain. It was not that he was mean, or more coldhearted to black employees than to white. He believed he owed workers nothing more than a job, and when business slackened, even that was not ironclad. He hired more Negroes than any businessman in America, giving them a monopoly on the profession of Pullman porter and a chance to enter the cherished middle class. He did it not out of sentimentality, of which he had none, but because it made business sense. They came cheap, and men used to slave labor could be compelled to do whatever work they were asked, for as many hours as told.

There was another reason George hired only Negroes, one that had to do with the social separation he thought was vital for porters to safely interact with white passengers in such close quarters. Women, after all, were disrobing on the other side of a thin curtain. Riders were stumbling into bed drunk, slinking into compartments of someone other than their spouse, tumbling out of upper berths. Such compromised postures called for a porter whom passengers could regard as part of the furnishings rather than a mortal with likes, dislikes, and a memory. It had to be someone they knew they would never encounter outside the closed capsule of the sleeping car, someone who inhabited a different reality. It must be a Negro.

Recruiters started signing them up shortly after George launched his fleet of sleeping cars. The Pullman Company built the sleepers and rented them to the railroads, complete with everything from fine linen and sweet-smelling soap to a service staff whose centerpiece was the porter. George's first choice for that job was Negroes from the old slave states. The blacker the better, passengers told him. If some riders were rude in return, so be it. That was outside his control and concern.

All of which was okay with most porters, at least at the beginning. They were, as George suspected, grateful for a steady salary, for being out of shackles and able to hurtle across the landscape in his luxurious sleeping carriages. They cherished the job and stayed a lifetime, with many passing it down to sons and grandsons. Work on the train was rigid and hierarchical, but they were accustomed to structure. No hierarchy could be more confining or cruel than that of slave and slavemaster. Little by little, however, some porters asked for more. They wanted the human dimension that slavery had taken away and without which they could not feel fully free. They needed a heritage and ancestors worth knowing. If the Pullman Company could not or would not tell them who their patriarch was, that first porter, they would frame their own gilded image.

They called him Daddy Joe. He was a Bunyanesque figure tall enough to pull down upper berths on either side of the aisle at the same time, agile enough to prepare uppers and lowers simultaneously, and so appreciated by riders that his pockets were weighed down with silver and gold. Once, when marauding redskins besieged his Central Pacific train at a water stop, Joe climbed atop the sleeper and spoke to the Indians in their own idiom, charming the chiefs into accepting a pile of Pullman blankets in place of passenger scalps. Another time he convinced passengers panicked by a rising river to stay seated 'til floodwaters subsided. Daddy Joe may or may not have been real, but the way porters told and retold his stories it was clear he reflected their aspirations as well as their need to know whence they came.

GEORGE PULLMAN KNEW his own roots enough to know they did not matter. Like most true believing entrepreneurs in the making, he saw history as mere curiosity, preordaining nothing. He was determined to become a player in the new financial and political orders, an age defined by the iron horse, shrinking frontiers, and the war brewing between the states. Industry was eclipsing the old land-based economy. Men who grasped those trends, men like George Pullman, were free to shape their future and, when needed, reshape their past. They were self-made.

The third of ten children, George set out in 1859 from the village of Albion in upstate New York to seek his fortune in Chicago, a city, like him, about to bloom. He was nearly twenty-nine, which was old for a pioneer and for a bachelor. Standing just over six feet, he had dusky hair he hoped would stay thick and glossy through regular application of a hair invigorator. His beard then had none of the fullness, or gray, that would become his trademarks, and in the style of the day it did not include a mustache. Just as he was not quite handsome, so his three decades in New York testified more to what he could not do than could. He was less drawn to God than two brothers who became Universalist ministers, less capable a craftsman than his father and other brothers despite having grown up with a carving knife and wood block by his side. He served long enough as apprentice in his father's cabinetmaking and building-moving businesses to learn both, and know he loved neither. That might explain why, after calling himself a cabinetmaker in the 1850 U.S. Census, in 1855 he told New York census takers that his occupation was "gentleman." Gentleman or not, when his father died two years earlier George, just twenty-two, had taken over as breadwinner for his mother and youngest siblings, a role he dutifully performed for seven years.

It felt liberating leaving Albion, a town of three thousand known for its snap beans and sandstone. He took with him more than he realized. Having experienced the grind of manual labor at his uncle's general store, then the family furniture shop, George decided he preferred the hours afterward when he could scrub clean, then promenade in high top hat and long-tailed coat. He had watched the newly widened Erie Canal fuel commerce in shorefront communities like his, but realized that the more agile railroad was displacing inland waterways as the preferred mode for carrying cargo and people. Most of all, he had learned that while making a sound product was important, even more critical to the riches he sought was a proficiency in peddling that product.

He already had cashed in on that understanding by convincing the owners of Chicago's Matteson House that, though he may have been from upcountry New York, he was the man most qualified to lift their hotel the eight feet needed to install a sewer system. George had learned a novel technique for moving buildings from Lewis Pullman, his father, who nearly twenty years before had patented a device to roll huge edifices away from the banks of the Erie so the canal could be broadened to handle bigger barges. In Chicago's case the commercial district had been built on poorly drained lowlands. The challenge was to elevate downtown buildings above the level of Lake Michigan, letting workers fill in muddy streets and flooded cellars with sand and concrete, then add sewers and lay gas and water pipes.

George and his minions were glad to oblige. They began with the Matteson House, which stood on the priciest section of downtown and was the largest building ever raised in Chicago. Next they lifted an entire block of clothing stores and print shops, banks and bookbinderies. The process was artful: workmen dug underneath the existing foundations to insert timbers and blocks, set in place six thousand jackscrews, then, at the sound of George's whistle, each of six hundred laborers gave their screws a quarter turn. Pilings under the buildings were reinforced daily to fill the widening gap; within five days, thirty-five thousand tons of buildings had been lifted nearly five feet, all without breaking a pane of glass, interrupting a shopper, or tipping a teacup. Chicago, which thirty years earlier had been a stinking swamp of wild onions, was getting the solid foundation a world-class city required. And George was proving to himself and anyone watching that he could bring off what seemed like the most fanciful of public works projects-levitating, then reconstructing, a major slice of downtown Chicago.

His next fantasy was even more improbable: putting a hotel on wheels.

The notion of a railroad car comfortable enough to let passengers sleep seems unremarkable from today's perspective, but at the time it was revolutionary. The earliest version of what might be called a train hit the tracks in the middle of the sixteenth century, when English mine owners realized that horse-drawn carts could be moved more easily along wooden rails than rutted roads. The first steam locomotive was tested in Britain in 1804. In 1827, a rudimentary railway was opened in America to cart granite the four miles from a quarry in Quincy to the Boston site where workmen were erecting a monument to the Battle of Bunker Hill. It wasn't until 1825-three centuries after British miners set up their pseudorailroad-that the public there began riding trains, and it took six more years to launch the first fully equipped, steam-powered passenger service in America.

The passengers rode, but they seldom rested. "Without a proper place to stow away one's hat, with no convenience even to repose the head or back except to the ordinary height of a chair, with a current of cold air continually streaming in and rendered necessary by the sulphurous heat of the furnace, and with the constant slamming of the doors at either end of the car as the conductor goes in or out, or some weary passenger steps onto the platform to have a smoke, the passenger must indeed be dead beat who can sleep or even doze in a railroad car," one rider recalled of a night trip to Wheeling, West Virginia. Another chronicler said the narrow, stiff-backed seats made travel so uncomfortable during the early years of steam that "it is difficult to understand how any passenger could have fallen asleep amid the horrors of the journey. Nevertheless, many travelers-fatalistic, steel-nerved, or exhausted-did indeed succumb to a sort of limp, half-conscious hibernation. Their heads lolled sideways on the wooden benches, their hats fell off, their mouths drooped open, and their eyes closed on the waking nightmare."

That nightmare included the havoc those first locomotives left in their wake. A British traveler traversing the United States in 1840 kept a journal of his uneasy experience. Feeling a "violent jolt, accompanied by a loud crash" as his train pulled past a crossing, he asked the engineer and conductor what had happened. "'Well, it was in going over a chaise and horse,' replied one of them, very coolly. 'There was no one in the chaise?' asked I, anxiously. 'Oh, yes, there were two ladies.' 'Were they thrown out?' 'I guess they were, and pretty well smashed, too.' 'Good God! And why didn't you stop the train? Can't you send back to know what state they're in?' 'Well, mister, I reckon they're in the State of Delaware; but you'd better jump into the steamer there, or you're likely to lose your passage.'" The man caught his steamer but later read that one lady had been killed, the other badly wounded, the horse "smashed," and the chaise broken to pieces.

Seeking to soften such bad dreams, or at least let riders sleep through them, officers of Pennsylvania's Cumberland Valley Railroad in 1838 launched regular sleeping car service for the fifty miles between Harrisburg and Chambersburg. Calling those primitive cars sleepers did not make them such. Beds typically consisted of bunks stacked three high, with cast-iron platforms and no sheets. There was no fresh air either, and about as much privacy as in an army barracks.


Excerpted from RISING FROM THE RAILS by LARRY TYE Copyright © 2004 by Larry Tye. Excerpted by permission.
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