Updated: Feb 5, 2021
Pullman Porters, the Black men who staffed the luxury first-class Pullman cars on the railroads for over a century, were key players in expanding the rights of Blacks in this country. They were overworked, underpaid, and demeaned. They established labor protections for black workers where none existed. Their story is one of decade after decade of dogged determination and speaking truth to power, never losing sight that their battle wasn’t just for workers’ rights – they were seeking racial justice and fair treatment for their community.
My interest in the Pullman Porters started some years back when a friend told me that passengers often called Pullman Porters George, regardless of what their names were. She thought of this story when she saw my play Why Would I Mispronounce My Own Name? in which I share the story of my favorite uncle, Tio Otilio, being called Tom at his place of work. The white people at his workplace thought it was too hard to say Otilio, so they simply called him Tom.
Refusing to learn someone’s name and asking or demanding that they use a nickname, or simply unilaterally choosing to assign someone a name of one’s choosing is the ultimate form of disrespect. This experience is all too common for many of us with names considered too “ethnic” and not real American names.
This practice is not unique to the United States. In Great Britain, upon entering service, new servants were often given 'acceptable', easy to remember, and generic names – Henry, John, and William were popular choices for men, while many female servants were frequently named Sarah or Emma. More about this topic in this article on the real lives of servants.
I’m glad my friend shared the George story, as it drew me to a fascinating piece of Black history that has greatly enriched my understanding of our nation’s civil rights history. As part of my research, I read Larry Tye’s book, Rising from the Rails, which taught me much about these far-sighted men and the many women who together organized and fought for these rights. For those who aren’t up to tackling Tye’s book, check out an excellent hour-long lecture he delivered some years ago at the Library of Congress,
There is also a great 16-minute video segment prepared by Democracy Now celebrating the contributions of Pullman Porters on National Train Day. Click here to watch.
Interested in watching a movie about the subject? Paramount and Showtime collaborated in producing 10000 Men Named George, available on YouTube, click here.
Railways were the fastest and most reliable system for moving people, goods, and information throughout the United States from the 1800s until the early to mid-1900s. Shortly after the end of the Civil War, George Pullman, a Chicago industrialist, and engineer by training, designed and manufactured the Pullman sleeping car, which revolutionized passenger train travel. Pullman cars were luxury hotels on wheels where service would be second to none. Traveling by Pullman was the ultimate in luxury, comfort, and safety in travel, and the preferred way of travel, initially by people with means, but eventually heavy marketing campaigns made this a must-try experience for the growing white middle class.
Pullman began recruiting Black men as porters and set his sights on hiring former slaves. Keep in mind the Civil War had recently ended and Black people were in need of employment. He recreated the caste and colorism system that existed in the plantation, with lighter-skinned Black men working as waiters and bartenders in the Pullman dining cars. The ideal Pullman Porter was very well trained and closely monitored and was expected to learn and follow hundreds of rules that ensured dignified and diligent service.
They obtained an education as they looked, listened, and learned. They picked up books, newspapers, and magazines left behind by passengers and brought them back home to their communities, and they reported back what was happening in other parts of the country. They distributed black newspapers and magazines published in major cities to small towns in the South, and all around the country. They were a source of up-to-the-minute news on what was happening in Black communities - where people were finding jobs and housing.
At their peak, Pullman sleeper cars accommodated 100,000 people a night, and for decades these luxury hotels on wheels crisscrossed the United States. In the early 1900s, the Pullman Company was the largest private employer of Blacks in the United States. There was a saying that Abe Lincoln freed the slaves and George Pullman hired them.
The job of Pullman porter was physically demanding with porters working 400 hours per month, with no guaranteed sleep time while on duty. They earned low-wages and tipping augmented their salaries. Porters did whatever passengers needed: poured drinks, made beds, cleaned toilets, shined shoes, pressed clothes. They were subjected to indignities and humiliations from passengers in order to earn their modest tips.
Pullman Porters were called boy, the N-word, and George on a daily basis. Being called George harkened back to the insidious racist tradition of slaves being named after their slave masters. The assumption was that these were George Pullman’s slaves.
A group of prominent white men with a first or last name of George created The Society for the Prevention of Calling Sleeping Car Porters George in the 1920s. It started as a joke, but the organization eventually had 31,000 card-carrying members including industrial tycoons, top military brass, senators, King George of Great Britain, and the baseball player Babe Ruth whose given name was George Herman. The group of “upstanding” white men asked the Pullman Company to provide a nameplate on each train with the proper names of the porters, so people would stop calling them George. They felt the use of their name, in this manner, was a disservice to their name.
Rather reminds me that the Karen-ing phenomena -- describing privileged white women who complain to authorities about the everyday activities of black folks -- led to complaints by some that the Karen-meme was sexist, racist, or both.
But back to the Pullman Porters. Notwithstanding the hardships of being away from their families for weeks at a time, there were pluses to holding these jobs. The pay was better than most jobs available to Black folks and offered the opportunity to see different parts of the United States, something simply out of reach for most people and in particular Blacks. They were exposed on a daily basis to the lives of well-educated, successful men and women who traveled by train.
Pullman Porters were a key part of the Great Migration and these jobs helped create the Black middle-class. Porters were able to save a bit of money and their children were among the first blacks to attend college. Working as a Pullman Porter was a desirable summer job for young Black men in college who could work during travel peak season and earn some money. Thurgood Marshall, the first Black Justice of the United States Supreme Court, was the son of a Pullman Porter and Marshall himself worked summers for the Pullman Company. Many prominent civil rights leaders and elected officials, such as Willie Brown and Tom Bradley (former mayors of San Francisco and Los Angeles, respectively) were the children of Pullman Porters.
Malcolm X, also worked for the Pullman Company, although not as a porter, and that experience shaped his views of tipping and race relations: “It didn’t take me a week to learn that all you had to do was give white people a show and they’d buy anything you offered them. . . We were in that world of Negroes who are both servants and psychologists, aware that white people are so obsessed with their own importance that they will pay liberally, even dearly, for the impression of being catered to and entertained.”
If you are a labor history buff, you have heard of the Pullman strike and boycott, headed by Eugene Debs, which was quashed by the US military troops on the order of the federal government. This strike in 1894 did not involve Pullman Porters, but rather white Pullman employees who manufactured the Pullman cars and who worked on the railroad cars. Blacks were not permitted to be part of the railway workers union, or for that matter, any other unions.
George Pullman and the Pullman Company were virulently anti-union, and Eugene Debs famously said that George Pullman was "as greedy as a horse leech," later correcting himself and noting that this "was unfair to leeches." The top lawyer at the Pullman Company during these tumultuous anti-labor wars was Robert Todd Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln’s son. When George Pullman died, Lincoln, Pullman's General Counsel, became the President of the Pullman Company.
Pullman porters were the first Black workers to successfully unionize, no small feat. The moving force behind their unionization was A. Phillip Randolph a giant among civil rights leaders. Randolph, an intellectual power, avowed socialist, and actor was the publisher of the Harlem-based Messenger Magazine. In 1925 the porters who had banded together to form The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters hired Randolph to lead their union. The fact that he did not work as a porter was an advantage: the company could not fire him.
Randolph led an arduous campaign for a decade that led to the Brotherhood gaining recognition as the exclusive bargaining agent for the Pullman Porters in 1935. Randolph called it “the first victory of Negro workers over a great industrial corporation.” He was the most widely known spokesperson for black working-class interests in the country and with his exceptional organizing skills, he envisioned and planned a March on Washington in 1941 to protest racial discrimination in employment in the defense industry. The March was called off when President Roosevelt met with Randolph and agreed to issue an Executive Order banning racial discrimination and also setting up the Fair Employment Practices Commission. Pressure from Randolph and other civil rights leaders also led to Executive Orders ending racial discrimination in the military services.
The March on Washington initially envisioned and planned by A. Phillip Randolph took place in 1963. There, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. Many consider Randolph the true father of the civil rights movement in the United States. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Lyndon Johnson in 1964. Learn more about Randolph here.
When A. Philip Randolph retired in 1968, he was succeeded by CL (Cottrell Laurence) Dellums, who had served as the Vice-President for the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters for decades. CL Dellums was the uncle of Congressman Ron Dellums who served with great distinction for almost three decades in the United States Congress, and later became the Mayor of Oakland.
CL Dellums had worked as a Pullman Porter for three years but was fired for supporting unionization. He then became a union organizer and was elected Vice President of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and ran the Brotherhood Chapter in Oakland. CL Dellums also headed the local NAACP Chapter and oversaw the NAACP’s work in nine Western states.
CL Dellums served on California’s Fair Employment Practices Commission for 26 years from its inception, part of that time as its Chairman.
Oakland’s Amtrak Station at Jack London Square is named after CL Dellums.
Women were an integral part of the civil rights machinery that was at the heart of the Pullman Porters' organizing. When Rosa Parks was arrested, the phone call she placed was to E.D. Nixon, the head of the Pullman Porters in Montgomery, who helped organize the year-long boycott. As wives, mothers, daughters, and church ladies, they played an important role in spreading the gospel of fair treatment and equality. When recognized, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters also represented the maids who worked on the railroad.
Sometime in 2021, when travel is possible, I look forward to visiting the National A. Phillip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum in Chicago. In the meantime, you can visit virtually at their website.
Thanks for reading my blog. I look forward to staying connected with you in 2021. May better days be ahead.