Pullman porters rode rails to respect

By CHRISTINE HEATH, UPI Correspondent  |  Aug. 3, 2004 at 12:16 PM
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WASHINGTON, Aug. 3 (UPI) -- "It seemed like the all American success story," said author Larry Tye.

His newest book, "Rising From the Rails: Pullman Porters and the Making of the Black Middle Class," traces the social ascendancy of the men who acted as attendants for George Pullman's luxurious line of overnight sleeping cars.

Through his extensive account of the men who were everything from chambermaids to shoe shiners for white travelers, Tye argues that these workers helped to propel the first successful black trade union, helped to pave the way for the eventual Civil Rights movement, and helped to create today's African-American middle class.

Tye writes, "Behind the porter's constant smile and courtly service lay a day-to-day struggle for dignity that anticipated black America's bloody crawl toward equity."

Workers and descendants of the Pullman porters include an impressive listing of some of the most influential black figures, including Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall and activist Malcolm X.

Tye, a former Boston Globe reporter, turned up a handful of still-living porters in every major city through an extensive one year search that led the author on a whirlwind hunt cross-country.

Jimmy Clark, a chef on the Pullman cars from 1918 to 1950, was one of the men Tye uncovered.

"I don't know if you ever heard about the three Ls, because L stands for so many things, but these three Ls was 'look,' 'listen,' and 'learn,'" Tye recounted of Clark's remembrances.

The three Ls were instrumental in the porters rise from the rails.

"They picked up stock tips, they picked up newspapers and books that passengers left behind, and most of all they picked up the lessons of the importance of education and saving so that their kids and grandkids would have opportunities that they didn't have," commented Tye.

Pullman's opulent sleeping cars were the standard in luxury, but were not the first.

Pullman merely refined existing models of sleeping cars to add comfort for his riders. Twenty-one years after the first model of sleeping cars hit the tracks Pullman introduced his improved model in 1859.

Following a three-year hiatus to California's gold rush, Pullman achieved a small fortune, which he put toward his first successful train model. Construction of the "Pioneer" cost four times the conventional sleeping car model.

Ranking service at the top of his list, Pullman first employed a Pullman porter in 1867 and made the porters' service a fixture by 1870.

George Pullman's motivations for employing freed slaves at the conclusion of the Civil War may have been to drive the bottom line for the Pullman Company.

"The reason George Pullman hired these black freed slaves as porters was because they were incredibly cheap, they would work up to 400 hours a month and they were in the eyes of white America, the perfect servant," explained Tye.

While Pullman can justifiably be characterized as exploiting the black labor force, the fierce businessman was also the largest employer of African American men during his reign.

Business for the Pullman Company reached a pinnacle by the 1870s and 80s.

Life was not easy on the rails for the over-worked and under-paid porters who covered upwards of 11,000 miles of track a month for a total of $10 in the 19th century. The remainder of the porters' income came from tips.

Obtaining tips often placed the railroad workers in compromising positions, Tye explained, "They were perpetually navigating that narrow line between being attentive and maintaining their dignity -- and it was not an easy thing to do."

Another key figure associated with the Pullman porters was the legendary A. Philip Randolph, who led the 12-year battle for the first successful black trade union.

The effect of the union formation, according to Tye, was instrumental in the progression of civil rights, "And so it became an inspiration for blacks in the trade union movement and for blacks outside who were fighting for things like civil rights. It was enormously important symbolically to a lot of black America."

Through their accomplishments, the Pullman porters provided the foundation for success in the generations to follow.

Larry Tye passionately stated, "I defy anyone to show a smaller group that had as big an influence (as the Pullman porters)."

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