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Moments in History: Pullman Porters

 

 

Pullman porters were men hired to work on the railroads as porters on sleeping cars.

The Pullman Company was a separate business from the railroad lines.

Prior to the 1860s, the concept of sleeping cars on railroads had not been widely developed. George Pullman pioneered sleeping accommodations on trains, and by the late 1860s, he was hiring only African-Americans to serve as porters.

When the Civil War ended in 1865 Pullman knew that there was a large pool of former slaves who would be looking for work; he also had a very clear racial conception… To seek out former slaves to work on his sleeper cars.

The primary job of the porters was to carry passenger’s baggage, shine shoes, set up and maintain the sleeping berths, and serve passengers

The term “porter” has been superseded in modern American usage by “sleeping car attendant”, with the former term being considered “somewhat derogatory”.

While the pay was very low by the standards of the day, in an era of significant racial prejudice, being a Pullman porter was one of the best jobs available for African-American men.

Thus, for black men, while this was an opportunity, at the same time it was also an experience of being stereotyped as the servant class and having to take a lot of abuse.

Until the 1960s, Pullman porters were exclusively black, and have been widely credited with contributing to the development of the black middle class in America.

Under the leadership of A. Philip Randolph, Pullman porters formed the first all-black union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in 1925.

Formation of the union was instrumental in the advancement of the Civil Rights Movement.

Porters worked under the supervision of a Pullman conductor, separate from the railroad’s own conductor in overall charge of the train, and who was customarily white.

In addition to sleeping cars, Pullman also provided parlor cars and dining cars used by some railroads that did not operate their own… the dining cars were typically staffed with African-American cooks and waiters, under the supervision of a white steward…

The introduction of the dining car made it unnecessary to have the conductor and porters do double duty…  The dining car required a trained staff… depending on the train and the sophistication of the meals, a staff could consist of a dozen men.

Pullman also employed African American maids on deluxe trains to care for women’s needs, especially women with children; in 1926,

Pullman employed about 200 maids and over 10,000 porters.

Maids assisted ladies with bathing, gave manicures and dressed hair, sewed and pressed clothing, shined shoes, and helped care for children.

The Central of Georgia Railroad continued using this service as a selling point in their advertisements for the Nancy Hanks well into the 1950s.

Pullman porters served American railroads from the late 1860s until the Pullman Company ceased operations on December 31, 1968, though some sleeping-car porters continued working on cars operated by the railroads themselves and, beginning in 1971, Amtrak.

In 1995, the A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum was founded on South Side, Chicago to celebrate both the life of A. Philip Randolph and the role of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and other African-Americans in the U.S. labor movement.

The museum is located in one of the original rowhouses built by George Pullman to house workers.

The Pullman Porter Museum is part of the U.S. Department of the Interior‘s Pullman National Historic Landmark District.

 

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