Black History Month
At Instapundit, Ed Driscoll points to a link illustrating the grandeur of flying as a passenger on the late Pan-Am Airlines and a commenter mentions the former grandeur of train travel.
That got me to thinking about those who provided much of that grandeur: the Pullman Porters. As a young man, one of my grandfathers worked as a Porter.
George Pullman, an industrialist who pioneered the world’s first popular sleeper trains, was obsessed with bringing luxury and convenience to the growing railroad industry after the Civil War. He did so by building “palace cars” complete with chandeliers, comfortable beds, air conditioning, and gourmet meals served by former slaves turned porters.
Slaves had already done the hard work of building many of the United States’ railroad lines. Pullman, who was as shrewd a businessman as he was a showman, felt that servant-like attendants would give riders an even keener sense of comfort and self-indulgence. So he hired former slaves—known to be cheap workers—to staff his palace cars. As historian Larry Tye writes, the saying went, “Abe Lincoln freed the slaves and George Pullman hired ’em.”
They were forced to answer to the name “George”
Just because slavery had ended, that didn’t mean that the job of a Pullman porter was dignified. Pullman porters were often addressed by the name “George”—a name that was based in the social standards of slavery itself. As Lawrence Tye writes for the Alicia Patterson Foundation, at some point porters began to be addressed by their employer’s first name, just as a slave would be addressed by his master’s name before emancipation.
This humiliation was heightened by the seemingly endless job description porters were expected to fulfill. As the Museum of the American Railroad notes, Pullman porters were “essentially at the beck and call of first-class passengers” but expected to be “otherwise invisible.” They did everything from shining shoes to carrying baggage to making beds. In some cases, they were even forced to sing and dance by condescending customers.
Pullman porters occupied a special place within the African-American community
Despite routine discrimination, a job at Pullman had real benefits. Pullman porters were well-traveled and rubbed shoulders with America’s elites. They were what Crew calls “a conduit into what the larger society might be thinking and doing.
“Train travel was a primary mode of transportation in this country up until the 1950s,” says Crew. In a time when many black men lacked mobility and steady work, Pullman porters were vital sources of community information.
“Pullman porters would bring African-American newspapers like the Chicago Defender or Pittsburgh Courier back to their communities,” Crew tells Smithsonian.com. Those newspapers, he said, gave Southerners information on how and where they could escape the segregation and violence they experienced at home.
By the way, guess what killed Pan-Am.
Juliette Akinyi Ochieng blogs at baldilocks. (Her older blog is located here.) Her first novel, Tale of the Tigers: Love is Not a Game, was published in 2012. Her second novel tentatively titled Arlen’s Harem, will be done on February 2017! Follow her on Twitter.
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