Saturday, April 4, 2009

The Last Pullman Porters Are Sought for a Tribute

A Pullman porter in the 1940s aboard the Capitol Limited between Chicago and Washington. Porters will be honored at an observance on May 9.

A Pullman porter in the 1940s at Union Station in Chicago. The last generation of Pullman porters — who played a critical role in African-American history — is dying off.

April 4, 2009
The Last Pullman Porters Are Sought for a Tribute

For more than a century, Pullman porters were a part of American train travel, until competition from planes and automobiles led to the decline of sleeper cars. Now the last generation of porters — who played a critical role in African-American history — is rapidly dying off. And Amtrak is attempting to locate the last few for National Train Day.

In 2001, the A. Philip Randolph Museum compiled a national registry of black railroad employees who worked from the late 1800s to 1969, a record that could be useful for historians and genealogists.

“There are a thousand people on this list — as we mark it up, it’s not looking like the same list anymore,” said Hank Ernest, who is coordinating the publicity for Amtrak. Asked how many they had found, he said, “Double digits.”

For his book “Rising From the Rails,” Larry Tye interviewed about two dozen former Pullman porters, so called because they worked for the Pullman Company, which made sleeper cars. “The youngest were in the 80s at that time, and the oldest were in their early 100s,” he recalled. In between the time he did the interviews and when his book came out in 2004, he estimated, a third of those men died. Another third have died since then, he estimates.

“The fact they are disappearing is taking with them a piece of American history,” Mr. Tye said.

Though it could be demeaning, the job of porter was considered for decades one of two good jobs for black men in the United States. (The other was working in the post office.) At its peak, the Pullman Company was the largest single employer of black men in the United States, employing 20,000.

The Pullman porters laid the groundwork for the civil rights movement by forming the first black labor union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, under the leadership of A. Philip Randolph in the 1920s. The union gave leadership and money to the civil rights movement.

It was a former Pullman porter, E.D. Nixon, who selected Rosa Parks as the sympathetic figure for the Montgomery bus boycott, and recruited a young minister named Martin Luther King Jr. to lead the protest.

“If Martin Luther King was the father of the civil rights movement, then A. Philip Randolph was the grandfather of the civil rights movement,” Mr. Tye said.

The Pullman porters also played an important role in the great black migration, since they were the only blacks who regularly moved between the South and the North. By carrying copies of black newspapers like The Chicago Defender and The Pittsburgh Courier, they offered Southern blacks in small towns a glimpse of what life was like in the big cities.

The porters were also playing a critical role in gaining an economic foothold for their descendants. “They are — to a disproportionate extent — the father, the grandfathers, the uncles of the black professional class today,” Mr. Tye said.

A number of prominent black figures have Pullman porters in their lineage, he said: William E. Kennard, a former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, had a Pullman porter grandfather; Thurgood Marshall, the Supreme Court justice, and Willie Brown, a onetime mayor of San Francisco, were the sons of Pullman porters.

The porters’ wages were supplemented by tips, and at times they threatened to strike if tips did not improve. An 1890 article in The New York Times debated the ethics of tipping porters: “Tipping is objected to by austere and frugal American moralists upon the ground that it undermines the manhood and self-respect of the tippee. But this proposition loses all its force when the tippee is of African descent.”

But with meager wages, Pullman porters made substantial contributions to their home communities. For example, in the late 1800s, a Pullman porter built and supported a school that educated hundreds of black children in Covington, Ga.

The Pullman porters were the inspiration of George Pullman, the company’s founder, which is why they were often called George, regardless of their real names.

He was looking for the perfect servant to signify the luxury train experience. “Who better to hire than ex-slaves?” Mr. Tye said. “They were brilliantly attentive. They were incredibly inexpensive to hire.” Not only were they servants, they provided entertainment, as they were organized into choruses, orchestras or bands.

The porters largely settled in cities that were major rail stops — Chicago, Boston, Washington, New York — but they could be found anywhere the railroads ran. “We found pockets of them in Nebraska, in Omaha,” said Mr. Ernest, who works for Images USA, which is working with Amtrak on the National Train Day project.

The men have retained a certain dignity. “When we find them, they are dapper,” Mr. Ernest said. “They are men, even at this age, who wear suits and ties.”

“They will look at you and have a great conversation, because back then that’s what they had to do,” he said.

Former porters should contact Saunya Connelly of Amtrak at (202) 906-4164 or connels with the following information: name, telephone number, mailing address, age, years of railroad service, and routes if known. The deadline for response is April 14. A ceremony honoring the porters is scheduled to take place during the celebration of National Train Day, on May 9, at 30th Street Station in Philadelphia.

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