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Pullman porters, once the backbone of passenger rail service, laid the groundwork for what became the civil rights movement

The Pullman porter, whose gentle manner, endless smile and willingness to please, was once one of America’s most recognized and ubiquitous figures for the traveling public, but behind that welcoming demeanor lay years of racial prejudice, pain, suffering and indifference.

“Pullman porters lived and worked in an era of American history that stretches from the Civil War to the conflict in Vietnam,” wrote Jack Santino in his 1989 book “Miles of Smiles, Years of Struggle: Stories of Black Pullman Porters.”

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“As Black workers serving a rich white clientele, they came to symbolize a golden age of rail transportation,” Santino wrote. “In the 1920s, while images in books, movies and popular songs were defining them as grinning, shuffling servants, Pullman porters organized what would become the country’s first successful Black labor union.

“[P]orters withstood physical abuse, job insecurity, intimidation, and brute force to triumphantly assert their essential dignity and to claim their rights as human beings,” Santino continued.

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Porters endured sleepless days and nights, weeks away from home and low pay. They worked an average of 300 to 400 hours a month, 24-hour shifts — dozing when they could, while traveling 11,000 miles a month.

They labored under ironclad rules, and, if a white passenger complained about a porter, he was fired.

E. Donald Hughes, II, a second-generation Pullman porter, helps Eric Lyles Jr., 2, from the Mt. Claire Express at the B&O Railroad Museum in 1998.
E. Donald Hughes, II, a second-generation Pullman porter, helps Eric Lyles Jr., 2, from the Mt. Claire Express at the B&O Railroad Museum in 1998. (ALGERINA PERNA)

The Pullman Co. was founded in 1867 by George Mortimer Pullman to provide luxury and parlor-car service to the nation’s railroads, and Pullman found a source of cheap labor among Black men seeking work after the end of slavery.

He hired more Black men “than any businessman in America, giving them a monopoly on the profession of Pullman porter and a chance to enter the cherished middle class,” wrote Larry Tye in his book, “Rising from The Rails: Pullman Porters and the Making of the Black Middle Class.”

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A. Philip Randolph, the founder of the International Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, was not a Pullman porter, but rather a labor organizer who was a co-founder in 1917 of The Messenger, a radical newspaper, which became a propaganda vehicle for the porters’ union.

It was Randolph who became the godfather of the civil rights movement that culminated with the historic 1963 March on Washington in which he played a major role.

After being approached by five disgruntled Harlem porters in 1925, Randolph agreed to lead the battle to establish the union. At the time the union began organizing, about 10,000 porters were riding the American rails.

A Pullman porter at the end of a train car corridor scratches his head and holds shoe polish and cloths as he contemplates the pairs of shoes arrayed outside curtained sleeping compartments.
A Pullman porter at the end of a train car corridor scratches his head and holds shoe polish and cloths as he contemplates the pairs of shoes arrayed outside curtained sleeping compartments. (Hulton Archive)

Riley Marcilous Davis, a Baltimorean and porter who helped establish the union, risked losing his job by letting Randolph use his home as headquarters for the union’s Baltimore division.

When the Pullman Co. realized that Randolph had enough votes to win the election to represent the porters, it tried to buy him off with a blank check with the notation, “Not to exceed $1 million.” He declined the generous offer and used it as a weapon against the company.

It wasn’t until 1937 that the union won a collective bargaining agreement and was recognized as the first all-Black union by the American Federation of Labor.

The union was also the vanguard of civil rights activism and through an alliance with the Baltimore Afro-American, Chicago Defender, New York Age, New York Amsterdam News and the Pittsburgh Courier, porters threw bundles of newspapers off trains in rural Black communities informing them of the developing movement.

Another important victory the union wrenched from the Pullman Co. was that porters would wear name tags with their uniforms and be called by their rightful names and not the humiliating “George” (after the company’s founder) or “boy.”

Thurgood Marshall, a Baltimore native and the son of a Pullman server and a schoolteacher, was the first Black man appointed in 1967 to the Supreme Court by President Lyndon B. Johnson.

While he was a student at Howard University Law School, Marshall worked as a porter. When he stepped down from the court in 1991, he was asked whether Black Americans were free at last. He replied tersely that he wasn’t free and “then used the porters, many of whom were his friends to make a point about prejudice and pride,” wrote Tye.

“Years ago, when I was a youngster, a Pullman porter told me that he’d been in every city in this country, he was sure, and he had never been in any city in the United States where he had to put his hands up in front of his face to find out that he was a Negro. I agree with him,” Marshall said.

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