Rising from the Rails: Pullman Porters and the Making of the Black Middle Classby Larry Tye
From the 1860s, when George Pullman first hired African-Americans to work on his luxury sleeping cars, until the mid-twentieth century, when the Pullman Company ended its sleeper service, the Pullman porter held one of the best jobs in the black community and one of the worst on the train. He was maid and valet, nanny and doctor, concierge and occasional undertaker to cars full of white passengers. His very presence embodied the romance of the railroad. But behind the porter's ever-present smile lay a day-by-day struggle for dignity on the long trips that separated him from his family while exposing him to the more privileged culture of well-heeled riders. Rising from the Rails depicts the paradox of life as a Pullman porter and writes a missing chapter of American history.
Larry Tye vividly re-creates the singular setting of a Pullman sleeping car, a capsule of space and time where all the rules of racial engagement came into focus and many were suspended -- so long as the train was moving. The dichotomy of the porter's working life -- duties not far removed from slavery, opportunities not available to other black workers in Jim Crow America -- made him both a representative of his time and a trailblazer. The period of the porter's employment by the Pullman Company coincides almost exactly with the struggle of newly freed slaves for the full legal freedoms finally achieved in the 1960s, and his largely unrecognized role in this struggle was critical. As the patriarch of black labor unions and the civil rights movement, he was among the first African-Americans to effectively claim a right to respect. He was also the father and grandfather of the African-Americans who today run cities and states, sit on corporate and editorial boards, and number among this country's leading professors, scientists, and clergy
Drawing on extensive interviews with dozens of African-American railroad workers and their descendants, Rising from the Rails tells the quintessentially American story of how a minority finds a foothold in the workplace and the nation's psyche.
“This book brings to life the stirring story of the civil rights legacy of A. Phillip Randolph and the Pullman porters, which is an inspiration to those of us following in their footsteps. Kudos to Larry Tye for giving us this wonderfully readable, and incredibly important, history.” Congressman Jesse L. Jackson, Jr.
“Larry Tye has written a much-deserved love song to the forgotten men of the civil rights and labor movements – the Pullman Porters who defeated a major corporation, helped finance numerous civil rights battles, spread news and culture nation-wide, and set a high standard for dignity.” Julian Bond, Chairman, NAACP Board of Directors
“This is one terrific book. It's a chapter of American history about which few of us know much, and it's a reminder of what life was like for African-Americans in this country, at least until the last few decades. But it's mostly about these men-- their courage, their tenacity and their hopes and dreams for their children and grandchildren. Many of them are no longer with us, but they should and would be rightly proud of how much their kids and grandkids have achieved and how much they have given to this country.” Michael Dukakis, Former governor of Massachusetts, former vice-chair of Amtrak board
“This book does a magnificent job in relating how a relatively small group of struggling workers shaped not only the African-American community but all of the United States. The story of the Pullman porter is no less important than any other struggle for civil rights in the American labor movement.” James P. Hoffa, General President, International Brotherhood of Teamsters
“Larry Tye's Rising from the Rails recreates an important chapter in the history of black people in this country: the hard earned passage of thousands of blacks into the middle class. By examining the progress of the Pullman porter - from the step and fetch it caricature to pensioned union member - Tye captures one of black people's many struggles to achieve equality. This is la story all Americans should know.” Vernon E. Jordan, Jr., Senior Managing Director at Lazard LLC and author of Vernon Can Read!: A Memoir
“Rising from the Rails chronicles the pioneering role the Pullman porters and their leader, A. Philip Randolph, played in building America's union movement. This vividly told story should be required reading for those who care about labor history, race history, and US history.” John J. Sweeney, President, AFL-CIO
“This is a well-researched and sympathetic history, a slice of Americana worth knowing.” Seattle Times
“Rescuing an icon from the edge of oblivion is no easy task; making room for him in the collective memory is harder still. But revealing his profound influence on our social and cultural institutions today requires insight and imagination. Larry Tye has both.” The San Francisco Chronicle
“[Tye's] analysis of class perceptions and race relations reverberates to the current day.” Booklist
“[A] highly readable business history at one end and labor history at the other... entertaining detail abounds... So does informing detail.” Publisher's Weekly
“Tye's work is worth the ride for its comprehensive survey of a topic that deserves much attention.” Library Journal
- Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
- Publication date:
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- First Edition
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- 5.90(w) x 10.18(h) x 1.17(d)
Read an Excerpt
RISING FROM THE RAILSPullman Porters and the Making of the Black Middle Class
By LARRY TYE
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 2004 Larry Tye
All right reserved.
Chapter OneOut of Bondage,
* * *
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.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet 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 (0-8050-6789-2) and Home Lands (0-8050-6591-1). He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
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