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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies filling in for Terry Gross. Tomorrow is National Train Day and a good time for us to remember a uniformed cadre of railmen who defined a period of American train travel and became an agent of social change, the Pullman porters. They got their name from George Pullman, who started a train company in the 1860s that had sleeping cars and promised luxury travel. The passengers were assured of special treatment by the Pullman porters. Pullman intentionally hired black men for the job, which was exhausting and sometimes demeaning, but also one of the best available to African-American men.

In fact, the Pullman porters helped to create and enlarge the black middle class. The Pullman Company terminated its sleeping car service in the late 1960s. Journalist Larry Tye's book about the porters is called "Rising from the Rails: Pullman Porters and the Making of the Black Middle Class." Terry spoke to him in 2004.

TERRY GROSS: You write that by the 1960s, Pullman porters had come to personify the grinning servant, the Uncle Tom. But the Pullman porters had been real agents of social change in their prime. In what ways did they helped to create social change?

Mr. LARRY TYE (Author): In a couple of ways. They first started in the 1930s. They launched the first successful black trade union in America. And this was a union that did all the conventional things that a union does in terms of giving them substantially more wages, shorter working hours, general better working conditions. But much more important than that, it gave them a sense of self-respect and a sense of identity, that they weren't just these nameless, faceless guys who worked on the cars.

They actually gave them name badges, which were very important things for these men who had either been called George or been called by conventional profanities over the years on the Pullman cars. And they were called George because in the tradition of a slave being named after a slave master, they were seen as the servants of George Pullman, the man who launched the company they worked for.

GROSS: George Pullman started hiring Pullman porters shortly after the end of slavery. And he intentionally wanted to hire dark-skinned ex-slaves. What was his reasoning?

Mr. TYE: His reasoning was twofold. One it was that they would come and work for him for whatever price, however low the price he decided to pay them, and he paid them next to nothing, and that they would work as long and as hard as he would demand of them, and he demanded them working 100 or more hours a week. But the more interesting reason that he hired them was he was trying to sell railroad customers back then on a whole new concept, on the concept of overnight travel. And his sleeping cars were more than double the price of a conventional railroad ticket.

So he had to convince these passengers that they were going to get such ultimate service, such luxurious service, that it was worth paying this, what seemed like an extremely high fee. And who better to convince them that they were going to be waited on brilliantly than ex-slaves, who embodied for these white passengers the whole notion of service.

GROSS: What was the service that they were asked to provide?

Mr. TYE: They were asked to do everything from serve as a chambermaid to a valet, shining shoes, nursing hangovers, taking care of passengers who were drunk or who had lost their temper. They were basically asked to do everything that somebody would do in a hotel on the entire service staff. And they were the only service staff on this railroad trip across country that could often take three or four days. So they did every job that was asked of them.

GROSS: Now, you mentioned that there was another reason why George Pullman wanted to hire dark-skinned African-Americans, and that was to clearly differentiate between the porters and the passengers. Because these was sleeper cars, people were going to be undressing, preparing for bed. What was this reasoning there?

Mr. TYE: It was a sense of the social separation, that these should be men who were so clearly from a different world than his white passengers that nobody could ever see themselves as running into these guys in other situation off the train. And the blackness of their skin was seen as one more way to differentiate them from their white passengers and to say these are people who are different, they are almost invisible to you and you should not worry that you would ever be embarrassed if you're in a compromising position with them on the train in terms of ever having to see them again in your other life.

GROSS: There was a whole rule book that he published regulating the porters' interactions with their passengers. What were some other things in the rule book?

Mr. TYE: There were some extraordinary things in the rule book. Some of the things that I find most interesting and were most offensive to the Pullman porters were that they should use different-colored blankets than either the passengers or the white conductors to make sure that no white employee of George Pullman or no white who rode on his train should ever have to worry about using the same pillow or blanket that a black porter had used. There were rules governing everything from how to fold a sheet to how to swat a fly, that everything - George Pullman believed in a system of management that didn't leave any detail to the discretion of his employees generally and particularly to his black Pullman porters.

So he specified how they should dust the passenger's jacket when they were leaving the train, on exactly what they should do when shinning shoes. Every little detail was written down in his hundreds of rules in his thick rule book that every porter was required to carry every moment that they were on the train.

GROSS: Do you think that African-Americans in the late 1800s and early 1900s considered this a good job?

Mr. TYE: It was actually considered one of the two best jobs you could have in the black community back then, particularly for black men. They used to say -there was a wonderful expression, Pullman and postal were the best things that a black man in that era could do, and it meant their working for the post office was one of the best jobs in terms of having higher pay and having a job with more status. And the only thing that beat that in terms of blue-collar work in the black world back then was being a Pullman porter.

GROSS: What was the life like - the day-to-day life of a Pullman porter?

Mr. TYE: The day-to-day life was one of having to largely wear a mask that essentially allowed them to accept some of the humiliation, some of the abuse that they took from their passengers, and not give it back to them. They had - they lived in a sense in two different worlds. One was a world that they showed and the face that they showed to their white passengers, and that was a perpetually obliging one. And the other was a world that they live in with fellow Pullman porters, where they actually developed their own language and their own way of learning how to absorb this abuse without giving it back, that gave them very much of a schizophrenic world back then.

GROSS: Where did they sleep?

Mr. TYE: They slept in the smoking room, which doubled as the men's toilet. They had a little curtain that separated them from the toilets and the wash basins. And they had an old couch back there. And they were given at most four hours to sleep at night. Now, in fact that sleep was interpreted anytime a white passenger or white man came in to use a toilet or to have a poker game into the late night in the smoking room or just to have a smoke. And so it was four hours maximum sleep, perpetual interruptions, and a very uncomfortable old couch separated by a thin curtain that was where they were supposed to get enough sleep to function for their 100 hours of work a month.

GROSS: Must have been hard to function and hard to be cheerful with so little sleep.

Mr. TYE: A little hard to be both of those, absolutely, and yet these guys managed to do it for careers that spanned 30 and 40 years, which was a function of two things, of how few other choices they had and of how the upside of the job, the idea of being able to travel the country, being able to absorb lessons from their wealthy and interesting white passengers, that all of that look so good compared to what other choices they had in those days, that they were willing to absorb the downsides of the job for all those years.

GROSS: What impact do you think it had on the porters and on the families of the porters for them to be exposed to the travel and to so many different people?

Mr. TYE: We can see directly, that's a big piece of this book in terms of trying to understand how they absorbed those lessons and what role it played on their lives. They came to see the value of education there. White passengers perpetually talked to them about the importance of getting advanced degrees or getting - going to college at all, and they learned those lessons and saw that their kids could get schooling.

They learned how to invest the money that they made, and it started out as very little money, but after they had a union, they had enough to actually think about what they would invest it in. And they saw America's leading financiers riding the train with them, and these were people they spent three and four days with, and they learned really concrete lessons. One porter after another would tell me the great investments they made, which in many cases let them get off the railroads or at a minimum let them put their kids through school.

They absorbed the whole lesson of how the white world worked in ways that they went on to put into use in their own life and that let them become, if not themselves, through their children and grandchildren the founding members of the black middle class.

DAVIES: Larry Tye, author of "Rising from the Rails" speaking with Terry Gross. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: We're listening to Terry's interview with journalist Larry Tye, author of the book "Rising from the Rails: Pullman Porters and the Making of the Black Middle Class."

GROSS: How did the Pullman porters start to unionize?

Mr. TYE: They tried to unionize originally in the late 1800s, and every attempt to unionize was quashed. George Pullman had a monopoly on sleeping car service. He despised the notion of unions, whether they were white unions or black unions. And he managed to fire workers or do anything he had to do to intimidate them. But there was a slow process that began in the mid 1920s, where a guy named A. Phillip Randolph, who was not a Pullman porter, came in and began a process of unionizing them.

And it took a full 12 years from the day they started the process to the day they actually got a union to make this effort work. And Randolph and all of his lieutenants went through dire(ph) poverty, experienced brutality at the hands of the Pullman Company, and they were never discouraged enough that they - one way or another managed to keep fighting the battle, whether it was in the courts, whether it was through regulatory agencies, and most importantly trying to keep the Pullman porters on board with him, and he miraculously succeeded in doing it through this long 12-year effort.

GROSS: What are some of the specific things that the Pullman Company tried to do to discourage the African-American workers from unionizing?

Mr. TYE: They beat up, they hired thugs, and this came out in a court case, to beat up one of Randolph's top lieutenants. They fired dozens and some people say hundreds of Pullman porters who were involved with the union effort. They went to court and they did everything they could to quash every effort there. They tried to lobby Congress and successfully did that to pass laws that made it very difficult to unionize the porters.

And they did all these things over a consistent period of 12 years, led at one point by Abe Lincoln's son, who took over for George Pullman as the head of the Pullman Company, Robert Todd Lincoln. And he was one of the best union busters of anybody the Pullman Company had ever had on board.

GROSS: Hmm. Once the Pullman porters did unionize, what impact did that have on the labor movement?

Mr. TYE: It had two impacts on the labor movement. One is it helped to desegregate the labor movement. In the early days, Randolph - A. Phillip Randolph and his porters' union were the only black union who was affiliated. They were not a formal part of the AFL but they were an affiliated union, and Randolph kept pushing for full status, equal status within the AFL hierarchy. He would go to every executive committee meeting and push for all the black unionists to get more equal treatment.

And he was a perpetual thorn in the side of everybody who ran the AFL-CIO for about 25 years until he started seeing that his efforts yield some results. It had a profound psychological effect on blacks who were trying to unionize, to see as visible a workers as the Pullman porters were successfully create their own union, and then he yielded practical results by pushing the union movement to accept blacks on an equal basis.

GROSS: You know, it's still registering on me that President Lincoln's son became the head of the Pullman Company and was so anti-union. Is it going too far to say that Lincoln signed the proclamation to free the slaves and then his son made sure that some of those ex-slaves or descendants of slaves didn't make a lot of money/

Mr. TYE: Actually, the Pullman porters over the years had their own expression. Lincoln freed the slaves and his son re-enslaved them, and they didn't feel it was going too far to say that. And that's precisely what Robert Todd Lincoln did. He was as vehement as George Pullman had ever been in terms of trying to limit salaries, limit any potential for promotion, basically limit the opportunities for his Pullman porters and keep them as Chattel slaves. And I think that Pullman porters over the years found that a really grim but ironic situation they were perpetually pointing to.

GROSS: Do you think that the Pullman porters or their union had much of an influence on the civil rights movement?

Mr. TYE: I think they had a profound influence. If I can tell you a quick story about when we think of the beginning of the civil rights movement, we often date it from the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and the Montgomery Bus Boycott began when Rosa Parks was asked to step to the back of the bus, refused to do it, and was arrested. The first person that she summoned to the jail to bail her out of jail was a Pullman porter named Edgar D. Nixon. She knew Nixon because she worked for him. He was - he had an office that - he held two hats in that office. And one was as head of the local chapter of the NAACP. The other was as head of the local chapter of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. And Nixon had been waiting for years to have just the right test case to try this boycott of the Montgomery bus system.

He had one problem though in trying to organize this boycott and that was that he was a Pullman porter, who was out on the road so much that he couldn't be there to be at all the meetings. So he looked around town for who would be somebody that could be the perfect front man for him in this boycott and he saw this young minister who had just graduated from Boston University named Martin Luther King who happened to have the biggest church in town. And he saw King as perfect.

He represented a wealthy church, a large church and he was young and impressionable enough that Nixon could pull the strings in making this boycott happen with Martin King as the front man to start with. And I think that's an interesting story to me because it's a metaphor for what porters did throughout the years in the Civil Rights Movement, that they used their union halls -turned over their union halls for civil rights meetings. They bankrolled the Civil Rights Movement at a time when there was no money to support civil rights activities. And their people behind the scenes were critical actors from the earliest days of the Civil Rights Movement.

GROSS: As part of your research for this book, you found as many surviving Pullman porters - former Pullman porters that you could and tried to interview them. You also interviewed - you know, family members of former Pullman porters, how did you find these people?

Mr. TYE: It was - I had been a journalist for 20 years and the most difficult job I think I have ever done in those 20 years was finding these Pullman porters. I did everything that - I called on every trick and every convention that I'd learned during those years as being a journalist from putting ads in railroad retirement magazines, putting ads in every black newspaper and every railroad city in America. I had Amtrak helping me track them down. I found their old employment data that was left behind by the Pullman Company and tried to track them down.

That way I wrote letters to probably 500 Pullman workers from these old Pullman Company records. I talked to black ministers in major cities across the country. I talked to civil rights leaders. And those things yielded precious few porters. The technique that actually worked the best, and it shouldn't be surprising but it surprised me and I was late to come to it, was talking to people who ran nursing homes in cities and major cities across the country and they tended to know - the Pullman porters were out of the normal network of social interaction.

They were so old and so tuned out from the normal networks, they were in their late 80's, in their 90's, one was 102. And the people who knew who they were and where they were, were people who were running the nursing homes that they were living in. In every city, once you found one Pullman porter, they would generally be able to lead you to others. But finding that first one was a wonderful challenge and I ended up coming up with dozens of them but it was really difficult and a real challenge.

GROSS: Now, Pullman porters have figured into a lot of movies, even songs. Do you have any favorites of all the ones you poured through?

Mr. TYE: I - first of all I found fascinating the way that porters were always background characters in the movies. It wasn't a movie from "The Thin Man" movies to an entire year of movies from the 1920s to about the 1950s where there was a trend that you didn't see this obliging, smiling Pullman porter character, who generally had no speaking part in the movie. And they were the perfect backdrop partly because they conjured up this whole era of elegance and when they said things, it was generally roles as the compliant, obligate fool.

But I think that there were a bunch of authors who managed to go a little deeper. And one of them and my favorite was Studs Terkel. And he had interviewed E. D. Nixon, this guy who brought Martin Luther King into the Civil Rights Movement in an oral history that Terkel was doing of the Great Depression. And he quotes Nixon as saying a Pullman porter can always get into a conversation anywhere. He walked into a barber shop, somebody would say, I didn't see you around here. Or may be they'd noticed his pants with a stripe.

Everybody listened because they know that the Pullman porter been everywhere and they never been anywhere themselves. These were men in the black community who stood out and who were seen as the most prominent and respected men in that world. They had been everywhere. They had seen things nobody else had and they shared their experiences when they came back from every train trip.

GROSS: Well, Larry Tye, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. TYE: Thanks for having me.

DAVIES: Larry Tye speaking with Terry Gross in 2004. Tye's book is "Rising From the Rails: Pullman Porters and the Making of the Black Middle Class." Coming up, David Edelstein on the news "Star Trek" film. This is FRESH AIR.

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