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Rising From The Rails

Pullman Porters And The Making Of The Black Middle Class

by Larry Tye

Paperback, 314 pages, Henry Holt & Co, List Price: $16 |


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Book Summary

Describes how the Pullman Company hired former slaves as sleeping car porters and became the largest employer of African American men in the country by the 1920s, creating a unique culture that blazed a path for a black middle class.

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Pullman Porters, Creating A Black Middle Class

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Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: Rising From The Rails

Rising from the Rails

Pullman Porters and the Making of the Black Middle Class

Owl Books (NY)

Copyright © 2005 Larry Tye
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780805078503

Chapter One

Out of Bondage,

All Aboard

* * *

HE WAS A black man in a white jacket and sable hat. Havingstepped out of the cotton fields barely two years before, he now wasstepping onto one of the locomotives that had long symbolized freedomto slavehands across America. He lit candles that illuminatedthe passenger carriage, stoked the pot-bellied Baker Heater, andturned down hinged berths that magically transformed the day coachinto an overnight compartment. He was part chambermaid, partvalet, shining shoes, nursing hangovers, tempering tempers, and performingother tasks that won tips and made him indispensable to thewealthy white travelers who snapped their fingers in the air whenthey needed him. It was the only real traveling he would ever do.

That much is known about the first porter to work on GeorgeMortimer Pullman's railroad sleeping cars. What is not known is hisname, age, birthplace, date of employment, or just about anythingelse about him. Historians will say the reason is that a fire in Chicagodestroyed the early archives of the Pullman Company. But, curiously,it didn't destroy the names of those first two primitive Pullman carsback in 1859, remodeled day coaches 9 and 19 of the Chicago, Alton& St. Louis Railroad, or the provenance of the first three paying passengers,all from Bloomington, Illinois. Or even the name of the originalconductor, Jonathan L. Barnes, who like all conductors was whiteand whose narrative is preserved in telling detail.

The pioneering porter, in fact, was not expected to have humanproportions at all, certainly none worthy of documenting. He was aphantom assistant who did not merit the dignity of a name or identityof any sort. That is precisely why George Pullman hired him. Hewas an ex-slave who embodied servility more than humanity, anever-obliging manservant with an ever-present smile who was therewhen a jacket needed dusting or a child tending or a beverage refreshing.Few inquired where he came from or wanted to hear about hisstruggle. In his very anonymity lay his value.

And so it was that the polished passengers who rode the plushvelvet-appointed night coaches over the first half century of PullmanPalace Car service summoned him with a simple "porter." The lesspolite hailed him with "boy" or, more often, "George." The latterappellation was born in the practice of slaves being named afterslavemasters, in this case porters being seen as servants of GeorgePullman. It stuck because it was repeated instinctively by successivegenerations of passengers, especially those below the Mason-DixonLine, and by caricaturists, comedians, and newspaper columnists. Ifthe more socially conscious among riders perceived the grim ironyof the moniker, they did not say so publicly. They certainly did notobject. The only ones who protested, at first, were white men namedGeorge. They were sufficiently annoyed by the slight, or more probablyamused, that they founded the Society for the Prevention ofCalling Sleeping Car Porters George, SPCSCPG for short, whicheventually claimed thirty-one thousand members, including England'sKing George V, George Herman "Babe" Ruth, George M. Cohan,and Georges Clemenceau of France.

Whether George Pullman knew his passengers were calling hisporters "George" is unclear. That he would not have cared is certain.It was not that he was mean, or more coldhearted to blackemployees than to white. He believed he owed workers nothingmore than a job, and when business slackened, even that was notironclad. He hired more Negroes than any businessman in America,giving them a monopoly on the profession of Pullman porter anda chance to enter the cherished middle class. He did it not out of sentimentality,of which he had none, but because it made businesssense. They came cheap, and men used to slave labor could becompelled to do whatever work they were asked, for as many hoursas told.

There was another reason George hired only Negroes, one thathad to do with the social separation he thought was vital for portersto safely interact with white passengers in such close quarters.Women, after all, were disrobing on the other side of a thin curtain.Riders were stumbling into bed drunk, slinking into compartmentsof someone other than their spouse, tumbling out of upper berths.Such compromised postures called for a porter whom passengerscould regard as part of the furnishings rather than a mortal withlikes, dislikes, and a memory. It had to be someone they knew theywould never encounter outside the closed capsule of the sleepingcar, someone who inhabited a different reality. It must be a Negro.

Recruiters started signing them up shortly after George launchedhis fleet of sleeping cars. The Pullman Company built the sleepersand rented them to the railroads, complete with everything fromfine linen and sweet-smelling soap to a service staff whose centerpiecewas the porter. George's first choice for that job was Negroesfrom the old slave states. The blacker the better, passengers toldhim. If some riders were rude in return, so be it. That was outsidehis control and concern.

All of which was okay with most porters, at least at the beginning.They were, as George suspected, grateful for a steady salary,for being out of shackles and able to hurtle across the landscape inhis luxurious sleeping carriages. They cherished the job and stayed alifetime, with many passing it down to sons and grandsons. Workon the train was rigid and hierarchical, but they were accustomed tostructure. No hierarchy could be more confining or cruel than thatof slave and slavemaster. Little by little, however, some portersasked for more. They wanted the human dimension that slavery hadtaken away and without which they could not feel fully free. Theyneeded a heritage and ancestors worth knowing. If the PullmanCompany could not or would not tell them who their patriarch was,that first porter, they would frame their own gilded image.

They called him Daddy Joe. He was a Bunyanesque figure tallenough to pull down upper berths on either side of the aisle at thesame time, agile enough to prepare uppers and lowers simultaneously,and so appreciated by riders that his pockets were weigheddown with silver and gold. Once, when marauding redskins besiegedhis Central Pacific train at a water stop, Joe climbed atop the sleeperand spoke to the Indians in their own idiom, charming the chiefsinto accepting a pile of Pullman blankets in place of passengerscalps. Another time he convinced passengers panicked by a risingriver to stay seated 'til floodwaters subsided. Daddy Joe may or maynot have been real, but the way porters told and retold his stories itwas clear he reflected their aspirations as well as their need to knowwhence they came.

GEORGE PULLMAN KNEW his own roots enough to know theydid not matter. Like most true believing entrepreneurs in the making,he saw history as mere curiosity, preordaining nothing. He wasdetermined to become a player in the new financial and politicalorders, an age defined by the iron horse, shrinking frontiers, and thewar brewing between the states. Industry was eclipsing the old land-basedeconomy. Men who grasped those trends, men like GeorgePullman, were free to shape their future and, when needed, reshapetheir past. They were self-made.

The third of ten children, George set out in 1859 from the villageof Albion in upstate New York to seek his fortune in Chicago, a city,like him, about to bloom. He was nearly twenty-nine, which wasold for a pioneer and for a bachelor. Standing just over six feet, hehad dusky hair he hoped would stay thick and glossy through regularapplication of a hair invigorator. His beard then had none of thefullness, or gray, that would become his trademarks, and in the styleof the day it did not include a mustache. Just as he was not quitehandsome, so his three decades in New York testified more to whathe could not do than could. He was less drawn to God than twobrothers who became Universalist ministers, less capable a craftsmanthan his father and other brothers despite having grown upwith a carving knife and wood block by his side. He served longenough as apprentice in his father's cabinetmaking and building-movingbusinesses to learn both, and know he loved neither. Thatmight explain why, after calling himself a cabinetmaker in the 1850U.S. Census, in 1855 he told New York census takers that his occupationwas "gentleman." Gentleman or not, when his father diedtwo years earlier George, just twenty-two, had taken over as breadwinnerfor his mother and youngest siblings, a role he dutifully performedfor seven years.

It felt liberating leaving Albion, a town of three thousand knownfor its snap beans and sandstone. He took with him more than herealized. Having experienced the grind of manual labor at hisuncle's general store, then the family furniture shop, George decidedhe preferred the hours afterward when he could scrub clean, thenpromenade in high top hat and long-tailed coat. He had watched thenewly widened Erie Canal fuel commerce in shorefront communitieslike his, but realized that the more agile railroad was displacinginland waterways as the preferred mode for carrying cargo andpeople. Most of all, he had learned that while making a sound productwas important, even more critical to the riches he sought was aproficiency in peddling that product.

He already had cashed in on that understanding by convincing theowners of Chicago's Matteson House that, though he may have beenfrom upcountry New York, he was the man most qualified to lifttheir hotel the eight feet needed to install a sewer system. George hadlearned a novel technique for moving buildings from Lewis Pullman,his father, who nearly twenty years before had patented a device toroll huge edifices away from the banks of the Erie so the canal couldbe broadened to handle bigger barges. In Chicago's case the commercialdistrict had been built on poorly drained lowlands. The challengewas to elevate downtown buildings above the level of Lake Michigan,letting workers fill in muddy streets and flooded cellars withsand and concrete, then add sewers and lay gas and water pipes.

George and his minions were glad to oblige. They began with theMatteson House, which stood on the priciest section of downtownand was the largest building ever raised in Chicago. Next they liftedan entire block of clothing stores and print shops, banks and bookbinderies.The process was artful: workmen dug underneath theexisting foundations to insert timbers and blocks, set in place sixthousand jackscrews, then, at the sound of George's whistle, each ofsix hundred laborers gave their screws a quarter turn. Pilings underthe buildings were reinforced daily to fill the widening gap; withinfive days, thirty-five thousand tons of buildings had been liftednearly five feet, all without breaking a pane of glass, interrupting ashopper, or tipping a teacup. Chicago, which thirty years earlier hadbeen a stinking swamp of wild onions, was getting the solid foundationa world-class city required. And George was proving to himselfand anyone watching that he could bring off what seemed like themost fanciful of public works projects-levitating, then reconstructing,a major slice of downtown Chicago.

His next fantasy was even more improbable: putting a hotel onwheels.

The notion of a railroad car comfortable enough to let passengerssleep seems unremarkable from today's perspective, but at the time itwas revolutionary. The earliest version of what might be called atrain hit the tracks in the middle of the sixteenth century, whenEnglish mine owners realized that horse-drawn carts could be movedmore easily along wooden rails than rutted roads. The first steamlocomotive was tested in Britain in 1804. In 1827, a rudimentaryrailway was opened in America to cart granite the four miles from aquarry in Quincy to the Boston site where workmen were erecting amonument to the Battle of Bunker Hill. It wasn't until 1825-threecenturies after British miners set up their pseudorailroad-that thepublic there began riding trains, and it took six more years to launchthe first fully equipped, steam-powered passenger service in America.

The passengers rode, but they seldom rested. "Without a properplace to stow away one's hat, with no convenience even to repose thehead or back except to the ordinary height of a chair, with a currentof cold air continually streaming in and rendered necessary by thesulphurous heat of the furnace, and with the constant slamming ofthe doors at either end of the car as the conductor goes in or out, orsome weary passenger steps onto the platform to have a smoke, thepassenger must indeed be dead beat who can sleep or even doze in arailroad car," one rider recalled of a night trip to Wheeling, West Virginia.Another chronicler said the narrow, stiff-backed seats madetravel so uncomfortable during the early years of steam that "it is difficultto understand how any passenger could have fallen asleep amidthe horrors of the journey. Nevertheless, many travelers-fatalistic,steel-nerved, or exhausted-did indeed succumb to a sort of limp,half-conscious hibernation. Their heads lolled sideways on thewooden benches, their hats fell off, their mouths drooped open, andtheir eyes closed on the waking nightmare."

That nightmare included the havoc those first locomotives left intheir wake. A British traveler traversing the United States in 1840kept a journal of his uneasy experience. Feeling a "violent jolt,accompanied by a loud crash" as his train pulled past a crossing, heasked the engineer and conductor what had happened. "'Well, itwas in going over a chaise and horse,' replied one of them, verycoolly. 'There was no one in the chaise?' asked I, anxiously. 'Oh,yes, there were two ladies.' 'Were they thrown out?' 'I guess theywere, and pretty well smashed, too.' 'Good God! And why didn'tyou stop the train? Can't you send back to know what state they'rein?' 'Well, mister, I reckon they're in the State of Delaware; butyou'd better jump into the steamer there, or you're likely to loseyour passage.'" The man caught his steamer but later read that onelady had been killed, the other badly wounded, the horse "smashed,"and the chaise broken to pieces.

Seeking to soften such bad dreams, or at least let riders sleepthrough them, officers of Pennsylvania's Cumberland Valley Railroadin 1838 launched regular sleeping car service for the fifty milesbetween Harrisburg and Chambersburg. Calling those primitive carssleepers did not make them such. Beds typically consisted of bunksstacked three high, with cast-iron platforms and no sheets. Therewas no fresh air either, and about as much privacy as in an armybarracks.