How the Pullman Porters Built a Black Middle Class During Segregation
Although black porters on Pullman train cars endured racial prejudice and tough working conditions, they used it as an opportunity to foment support for civil rights and to put their families on the next rung of the economic ladder.
Founded in Chicago and chartered in 1867, the Pullman Palace Car Company ushered in a revolution in new forms of luxury transportation in America. The brainchild of American industrialist and engineer George Pullman, the company provided railroads with conductors and porters that serviced their “Palace” train cars.
These cars were used on long‐distance train routes that could last from a few hours to entire days. This made the role of a black porter somewhat akin to that of a modern flight attendant might deliver but often across an even longer timeframe.
Notably, while the passengers were white, the porters were all black. This was the result of efforts on the part of George Pullman and his company to enlist thousands of Black Americans after the Civil War for employment, including many former slaves.
Having a Pullman porter attend to your needs was a vital selling point for passengers seeking truly world‐class travel accommodations. The porters worked up to 400 hours a month often with little or no sleep or time off. Their role was to provide any possible amenity to passengers, including carrying luggage, shining shoes, cleaning the rail cars, and serving food and beverages.
As desirable as riding on a Pullman car was for wealthy consumers, the Pullman Palace Car Company also became a highly sought‐after place of employment for Black Americans seeking to advance their economic status. It is reported that in 1926 they made in the neighborhood of $810 per year (a figure amounting to nearly $12,000 today adjusted for inflation), which was much more than the median black worker at the time. 1
Despite the highly subservient nature of the position, many porters became fiercely loyal to both George Pullman and to his extended family.
Author Larry Tye in his book Rising From The Rails: Pullman Porters and the Making of the Black Middle Class,noted:
“THE MOST INFLUENTIAL black man in America for the hundred years following the Civil War was a figure no one knew. He was not the educator Booker T. Washington or the sociologist W. E. B. DuBois, although both were inspired by him. He was the one black man to appear in more movies than Harry Belafonte or Sidney Poitier. He discovered the North Pole alongside Admiral Peary and helped give birth to the blues. He launched the Montgomery bus boycott that sparked the civil rights movement—and tapped Martin Luther King Jr. to lead both. The most influential black man in America was the Pullman porter.”
George Pullman was open that his reason for hiring black porters was that they would provide excellent service and toil for long hours at relatively low wages. He also believed that black porters (particularly those with darker skin) could quietly work in their jobs without bringing unwanted, outside attention to white upper and middle‐class passengers. 2
During the 1900s, a time where other prominent businesses were reluctant to hire Black Americans, the Pullman Company became the largest single employer of black men in America. By 1920, the company had the distinction of being the 4th largest corporation in Illinois and the 2nd largest in the nation. 3
Underpaid, overworked, and subjected to constant racism, the Pullman porters often faced disrespect. They were often called “boy” or “George,” the latter reference a vestige of slave names tied to slave owners. Nevertheless, these black porters exhibited great pride in their work. Their presence and influence would play an instrumental role in the Great Migration from the South, fueling the rise of a new black middle class and igniting the civil rights movement.
In many black circles, being a Pullman Porter was seen as a prized job, one that fostered a lasting generational legacy for family members and relatives. They were better compensated than most black workers at the time, enabling some porters to save the money necessary to send their children to historically black colleges; furthermore, they were not subjected to the grueling, backbreaking fieldwork common with plantations and sharecropping.
One of the appealing aspects of these jobs was the opportunity it afforded porters to travel and be exposed to new environments. Being a porter also served as a stepping‐stone for later careers in high profile restaurants, fine hotels, and even the White House itself. For example, Porter J.W. Mays, who first became acquainted with U.S. President William McKinley while serving him in his private sleeping car, would later work more than four decades in the White House serving McKinley and the eight presidents that followed him. 4
The Pullman Porters also played a pivotal role in the dissemination and distribution of the iconic black newspaper, the Chicago Defender, which served as an important resource in the migration of millions of blacks from the South to the North. The porters distributed this newspaper–which was often banned in the South–into the hands of many black Southern families via a clandestine distribution network where bundles of papers tossed off of trains would be retrieved by local men who then distributed the papers to their communities. In an echo of the “Underground Railroad” that helped slaves escape the South before the Civil War, the Pullman porters used the railways to spread ideas about freedom and opportunity to black communities across the nation.
A key figure in the Pullman Porter historical narrative is labor organizer and civil rights activist A. Philip Randolph, who in 1925 founded the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP). This labor union aimed to improve the working conditions and treatment of black railroad porters and other workers employed by the Pullman Company.
Upward economic mobility came at a cost. As documented by Andrew J. Diamond in his book, Chicago On The Make: Power and Inequality In A Modern City, the middle‐class wages of the Pullman Porters “depended on gratuities, which placed them in a degrading and precarious position in relation to white customers, who could decide to withhold tips to those not displaying the requisite subservient demeanor.”
BSCP was established to challenge these demeaning conditions as well as in response to the refusal of the American Railway Union to accept black workers as members. Through the union, Pullman Porters were able to leverage their collective power to advance their economic and social position in a deeply intolerant America.
In ensuing years, the BSCP engaged in a long, protracted battle with Pullman Company officials over worker rights and pay. After much resistance, the Pullman Company agreed to begin good faith negotiations with the porters. In a landmark development, the company in April of 1937 signed a collective bargaining agreement with the union, the first in history between black workers and a major American corporation. 5
Later, Randolph and the Brotherhood of Workers played a pivotal role in influencing President Franklin Roosevelt to sign Executive Order 8802 in June of 1941. This order was aimed at ending discriminatory hiring practices in the defense industry. It also also led to the creation of the Fair Employment Practice Committee, tasked with expanding job opportunities for Black Americans.
Randolph’s efforts in galvanizing the Pullman porters underscore themes like initiative and self‐reliance that are often espoused in libertarian philosophy. And although Randolph was an avowed socialist, his fight for racial equality is something that libertarians should sympathize with.
The success of the Pullman Porters is a reminder that black Americans overcame seemingly insurmountable barriers to become masters of their own fate. Rather than acquiescing to the life of a sharecropper, black Pullman porters made a better life for themselves as well as for their families. Being part of the Pullman corporation gave them a modicum of the economic power and personal freedom needed to explore new environments and build businesses of their own.
The Pullman porters’ social, cultural, and economic impact on America should be highlighted in the history of the civil rights movement. Their legacy of freedom and economic advancement shaped the historical foundation of black America today.
You can find vestiges of the influence of the Pullman porters in their descendants, their children and grandchildren who went on to create the bedrock for the nation’s black professional class. Luminaries like Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, former Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, jazz musician Oscar Peterson, and track and field star Wilma Rudolph were all descendants of Pullman porters. Indeed, the legacy of the Pullman porters has outlasted both the Pullman Company and the man himself.