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.

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