Pullman Porters: Ambassadors of Railroad's Golden Era - Black Enterprise
Black Enterprise Magazine September/October 2018 Issue

Page: 1 2


By the 1920s, a peak decade for the railroads, some 20,000 African-Americans were working as Pullman Porters and train personnel. (Source: Lyn Hughes; A. Phillip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum)

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.


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.

Page: 1 2

Join the Conversation

Marcia Wade Talbert

Marcia is a multimedia content producer focusing on technology at Black Enterprise Magazine. In this capacity she writes and assigns stories to educate readers about social media; digital integration; gadgets, apps, and software for business and professional development; minority tech startups; and careers in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). In 2012, she received two Salute to Excellence Awards from the National Association of Black Journalists and was recognized by Blacks in Technology (BiT) as one of the Top 10 Black achievers in the tech arena for 2011 at SXSW in Austin, Texas. She has spoken about technology on panels for New York Social Media Week, at The 2012 Rainbow/PUSH Wall Street Summit, as well as at Black Enterprise’s Entrepreneurs Conference and Women of Power Summit. In 2011, SocialWayne.com chose her as one of 28 People of Color Impacting the Social Web, and through crowdsourcing she was listed as one of BlackWeb2.0's/HP's 50 Most Notable African American Tastemakers in Social Media and Technology for 2010. Since taking on the role of Tech editor in September 2010, she has conceived and produced five cover stories on Technology and/or STEM and countless articles, videos, and slideshows online. Before joining BlackEnterprise.com as an interactive general assignment reporter in 2008, she freelanced with Black Enterprise beginning in 2003 while working as the technical editor at Prepared Foods magazine. There she further honed her writing skills and became an authority on food ingredients, including ingredients used in food fortification and enrichment. Meanwhile, her freelancing with Black Enterprise and BlackEnterprise.com helped her stay current on issues pertaining to the financial and business welfare of African Americans. As a general reporter for Black Enterprise she attended and reported on the Democratic and Republican National Conventions, where she interviewed Valerie Jarrett, senior advisor and assistant to President Barack Obama and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. Marcia has a Bachelor of Science degree in Agriculture with an emphasis in food science from the University of Minnesota, and a Master of Science degree in journalism from Roosevelt University in Chicago. En route to her secondary degree, she served as the editor-in-chief of the Roosevelt University Torch, a weekly, student-run newspaper. An avid photographer and videographer, Marcia is one of several employees at BLACK ENTERPRISE who interned for the publishing company as a college student. She lives in New Jersey with her husband, a food scientist; her seventeen-month-old daughter; and “The Cat”, but still considers Chicago home.

MORE ON BlackEnterprise.com