Pullman porters, who wore dignified uniforms, traveled cross country, and met celebrities and dignitaries, seemed to live glamorous lives. They often transported black newspapers to areas where black media wasn’t available and were held in high esteem in the black community. But they were also dehumanized, ridiculed, and undermined.
“People don’t know that Gordon Parks, the famous photographer, was a Pullman porter,” says Lyn Hughes, the founder of the A. Phillip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum in Chicago. “More recently, people have come to find out that [Supreme Court Justice] Thurgood Marshall and [civil rights leader] Benjamin Mays were Pullman porters … During that era, the sleeping car porter was one of the few jobs that a black man could have that was valued or recognized as something of importance.”
Thomas Gray, 71, grew up around the railroad in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where his father was a Pullman Porter and his grandfather a porter and porter/brakeman. So, it was no surprise that Gray sought to work as a porter during the summers while he attended college at the University of New Mexico. (For more on the history of the Pullman porters, check out our audio slideshow.)
“[We] were the role models of the African American community mainly because [we] had the good jobs,” Gray says. “You got to meet new people [which] made you more mellow in your attitude … It brought me out of my cocoon and helped me adapt to the world.”
After working as a porter for four years, he graduated in 1961 with an electrical engineering degree and went on to work at aerospace and defense corporation Boeing for 32 years.
A GRAND HISTORY
In 1864, George Pullman, the Chicago businessman who invented the Pullman Sleeping Car, opted to exclusively hire recently freed black men to serve passengers “hand and foot.”
Hughes explains on her Website that by the 1920s, a peak decade for the railroads, some 20,000 African Americans were working as Pullman Porters and train personnel. At that time, this was the largest category of black labor in the United States and Canada. Porters were able to establish a comfortable life. They were able to buy homes, pursue higher education and start businesses.
Despite some of the perks, Porters often dealt with overt racism. White passengers opted to call the porters “George” as a way to dehumanize and objectify them as property of George Pullman.
The responsibilities of porters extended beyond serving passengers, with some porters working as brakemen, conductors, and switchmen—skilled jobs traditionally held by white railroad workers — but blacks were still given the title of porter and were paid substantially less.
“They worked 20 hours and slept four, and when they slept, they were not allowed to sleep in the train where the other folks were.