Trains, Servitude, and Class Mobility

Pullman Porter

A friend recently told me that she was going to be visiting Chicago, a city I briefly lived in years ago that was formative to my understanding of the way race and place are connected. She asked for suggestions of what to see while she was there, and one of the first thoughts that came to mind was the Pullman neighborhood and Pullman Porter Museum. Much to my regret, I had never made it myself to the museum while living in Chicago, but I’ve long been thoughtful about who the Pullman Porters were and the role they played in growing the black middle class through serving on trains.

My curiosity about the Pullman Porters has to do with one of the central questions I’ve always had about my family, namely, how did we make it? How did my black family move from slavery to the upper-middle class in three or four generations when so many others have not?

My family, like most families has many stories that have been passed down through the years and across the various branches that make up our ancestral tree. Some of the stories which are told over and over involve a great-grandfather of mine who was a Pullman Porter in the Eastern part of the country. This great-grandfather is always spoken of with the utmost respect, and his position as a Pullman Porter held up on a pedestal of pride.

These stories were a part of the respectability politics that I grew up with, but as I got older I started to realize that they went much deeper than that. I started to realize that there was a huge socioeconomic importance to my great-grandfather’s career. In being reminded of the Porters again, I wanted to look into their history a bit more and see what connections people have dug up between those opportunities and class mobility.

I found that the Pullman sleeper trains were all about simulating upward mobility, and not just for blacks. Whites who rode the trains were often middle class, but got to have the experience of very comfortable accommodations and being waited on hand and foot. The almost exclusively black Pullman Porters got to hold a job that (for the most part) avoided hard physical labor, and which projected a certain air of capability, cleanliness, and sophistication that was so often denied African Americans at the time. Porters traveled widely for their jobs, meaning that they also gained a certain worldliness that they brought back to their home communities. They also learned valuable skills by listening in on the lawyer, businessman, and doctor passengers, and then applied those skills by starting small businesses of their own.

It’s important not to have too rosy a view of the job though. The salary was terrible at about $7,500 in today’s dollars (most of the money Porters made came from tips), and they weren’t paid for the hours of preparing trains in the morning or for the meager 3-4 hours of sleep granted to them each night. Passengers often called all Porters “George” after George Pullman who owned the line of train cars, seeing the black workers not as individuals but property of the company.

Many of those challenges were addressed by the Porters’ labor union led by A. Philip Randolph, The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. The Brotherhood was the first black union to force a big company to the negotiating table. Their wins of higher wages, a pension, and benefits were critical in helping the Porters lead a higher quality of life, save for their children’s education, and financially assist their communities.

Said Pullman Porter Museum founder, Dr. Lyn Hughes:

The families who had Pullman Porters in their families were the ones who had a telephone, they may have had a TV. They would have owned their own property. The wives had china, lace table cloths.

My great-grandfather only represents one branch of my family tree, and I’m guessing there are a lot of other factors that contributed to our upward mobility. But the history of the Pullman Porters and how those employees were able to carve out a living, a real and decent living from their job is important. The Porters represent one of those small windows of opportunity that had a tremendous socioeconomic legacy for those few who were poised and able to take advantage of it.

I think the trail can lead back even further — who was most able to get a job as a Porter and why? Who didn’t qualify, didn’t have the “look” that George Pullman sought out? It’s devastating that class mobility can have so much to do with these exclusive opportunities rather than be a lifting of all families at once. We still use this “magic job” strategy often in workforce development — we think if only we can train enough people for a certain highly-paid, career-ladder job, for instance, then we can increase the size of the middle class. But the bifurcation of the classes throughout history might be showing us that without changing the underlying economic structure, individual jobs can only ever be a mobility solution for some.

Image Source: antefixus U.E. via Flickr.

A Trip Across the Bay

telegraph hill

Doing a photo walk of San Francisco’s North Beach area has me contemplating that age-old Oakland vs. San Francisco rivalry. I’ve been through so many versions of this conversation — the one where someone says anything great about the city they live in and then those living on the other side of the bridge have to come back with a reason for why their city is better. Back and forth.

I’m as guilty of this as anyone — I’ll defend Oakland’s awesomeness to the end. (Seriously though, it’s 10 degrees warmer here — is there really still a question?) But under the friendly rivalry about Oakland being better than San Francisco there are some complicated truths, some realities that make it hard to see this banter as just a game, especially from the Oakland perspective.

Truth One: San Francisco is an undeniably pretty city.

San Francisco Financial Districtdoorplantcoit towerfog hill marketstairs

The water. The bridges. The hills. The architecture. The greenery. From an aesthetic point of view there’s a lot to love about the city. There’s a mystery and quaintness to all those little alleys and 45 degree streets.

But all that beauty is tainted by the reality of how hard it is to afford to live there, especially the parts that make the front of postcards.

Which brings us to Truth Two, one most Oaklanders have understood for quite a while: San Francisco is an exclusive city.

When I see a building like this, with a balcony overlooking the Bay Bridge, I wonder who lives there. Probably either someone with a lot of money or someone who is in rent-controlled unit and has been there for a very long time. You could even put your money on both.

San Francisco view

And when I see a rare empty lot in the area I have suspicions about who owns the land and how much money they will make in selling it or putting up some real estate.

empty lot

What I struggle with in being in San Francisco is a feeling of alienation, that I am not meant for any of the city’s residential space. Instead I am relegated only the occasional entertainment or shopping. Or perhaps I am only meant to pass through. It is not a city I find easy to be comfortable in.

It’s not that San Francisco has zero affordable housing or that Oakland isn’t struggling with the same challenges of rising costs. Most of Oakland is quickly skyrocketing in price toward comparable levels, and we’re rapidly losing our diversity. I think all of us in Oakland realize how much of a cautionary tale our sister city represents across the Bay.

But for now there is still some integrated diversity in Oakland, even as it declines and we struggle to hold onto what’s left. Oakland still very much feels different from its completely gentrified counterpart. Things are changing, but there’s a hope that not everything will change if we plan our cities smart enough and quickly enough, if we protect the people who are most vulnerable to being pushed out.

So maybe there is a little bite to those conversations about which city is better. On the Oakland side maybe there’s a defensiveness and a fight to protect the diversity and the affordability that Oakland has known in its past.

And I can’t speak firsthand, but perhaps on the San Francisco side it hurts to acknowledge what one might be losing by living there. Even as you relish the charm and beauty of your neighborhood, I wonder if you might feel the absence the kinds of people you don’t meet because they can’t afford to be your neighbor.

golden gate

So Oakland vs. San Francisco? Let the debate rage on. But be gentle to us over here in Oaktown. We’ve got a lot to lose.

Community Trauma

I’ve been feeling an urge to use this blog to tap more deeply into my creative self, especially in exploring my experiences of place and identity without focusing as much on writing toward neat and tidy conclusions at the end. I’m not exactly sure where that will take me, but here’s to experimentation!


About a week before the Fourth of July I began to have the experience of jerking awake to a loud boom.


I live in a busy part of Oakland, where people stay awake late and the noises never completely die down even on a regular night. There’s always a fire truck running past or dull beats of music coming from somewhere. The fact that small-scale explosives seem to have been for sale everywhere lately in the name of Independence means that the nature of my neighborhood’s late night festivities has only increased.

Knowing it was just fireworks didn’t quell the sensation I experienced in waking up to a very sudden and loud noise multiple times throughout the night. Panic seems to spread quicker when the sleeping brain is in control. I would wake up with adrenaline running throughout my entire body, my heart leaping five times a second. And for a moment I would be sure that I was hearing gunshots.

Then eventually the cloudy feeling in my brain would pass and I would understand that I was just hearing fireworks. The slow process of trying to get my body’s physical stress reaction to calm down would begin, and eventually I would drift back off to sleep, a little grumpier perhaps than before.

The whole experience (which fortunately only lasted for a few days) felt like a tiny glimpse into the world of community trauma. There is no rationalizing with the physical and psychological reactions to sounds and situations that induce fear — it’s an immediate and visceral response, and I can only imagine what that repeatedly triggered response can do to the body and mind over time.

Despite the amount of activity and noise in my neighborhood, it’s actually pretty safe overall. I know that I’m not likely to encounter physical or gun violence while walking around, and as far as I know there aren’t any active gangs claiming my area as “turf.” So while the loud noises unsettled me in the moment, I knew, come daylight, that everything in my neighborhood would be fine and that I would be able to go about my life as normal.

What about the neighborhoods where that’s not true? What about the places where you wake up in the morning and it turns out someone you knew got shot last night? There are communities where gunshots are a part of life to deal with always.

A friend of mine who worked with East Oakland youth told me once about guest teaching in a classroom where a car backfired suddenly very close by. Several of the students flinched or ducked a little, before recovering and realizing that nothing violent had happened. Many tried to laugh it off, make a joke of the automatic reaction. But these small, instinctive movements are so incredibly telling of what the nervous system has to get used to in certain communities.

I think of other contexts. Nigerian women and girls being kidnapped and their bodies used over and over again for the pleasure of others. Regular employees in New York City whose lives were shattered on 9/11. Churchmembers seeing their spiritual homes go up in flames in the South (now and in the past). Hurricane Katrina.

All these are examples of communities where for some period of time trauma became the norm. I try to hold that reality in mind this week and act out of gratitude that I have not had to be tested in that way, that so far in my life I have been safe when too many others are not.

Post Image: Ben Grimmnitz via Flickr

Why Intentional Compassion is Critical to Racial Justice

Intentional Compassion

Last winter I attended a powerful march for #BlackLivesMatter in Oakland. When I came home I started to write this piece on the need for more intentional compassion in the racial justice movement. While the piece didn’t end up coming out until this past week, I still stand behind the position that we need to explore implicit bias through the lens of compassion and lovingkindness. Many thanks to the Buddhist Peace Fellowship for publishing the piece and uplifting the intersection of Buddhism and social justice!