Former Pullman Porter Subtly Confronted Racism This weekend, 93-year-old Frank Rollins will attend a celebration in Philadelphia in honor of the African-Americans who served as Pullman porters. Amtrak estimates that fewer than 200 former porters are still alive. Rollins says he gladly served passengers but "wasn't willing to be a showman."
NPR logo

Former Pullman Porter Subtly Confronted Racism

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Former Pullman Porter Subtly Confronted Racism

Former Pullman Porter Subtly Confronted Racism

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Robert Siegel. Tomorrow, Amtrak is sponsoring a National Train Day in four U.S. cities. The event in Philadelphia will honor the service of the African-Americans who worked on the passenger railroads, and we're going to hear from one of the men traveling to this Philadelphia event right now.

NORRIS: His name is Frank Rollins. He worked on the rails for nine years, from 1936 to 1945, before going on to open his own restaurant and jewelry store. He's now retired and lives in Houston. He's 93, but you wouldn't know that from listening to his voice.

Back in 1936, he got a job with the Illinois Central Railroad as a cook before becoming a Pullman porter. The porters took their name from the Pullman company that made sleeping cars. They were all black, and regardless of their first name, patrons often called them George, a label intended to note that they were one of George Pullman's boys.

Mr. FRANK ROLLINS (Former Pullman Porter): They wanted youngsters who were from the South. They wanted Southern boys to man the dining cars. They thought they had a certain personality and a certain demeanor that satisfied the Southern passengers better than the boys who came from Chicago or surrounding areas.

NORRIS: But part of that that they understood the rules of society back then.

Mr. ROLLINS: Yes. They would be polite and take on the attitude of a servant, you know.

NORRIS: Tell me about the training, because I understand it was very rigorous.

Mr. ROLLINS: It was very rigorous. We had a colored fellow, as we were in those days, who was the trainer, and he assembled the class and went through what the policies were and routes of the Pullman Company. He took you on a Pullman car and went through the mechanics of breaking down the beds, and then there was the matter of making beds with the linens that were supplied in a closet on the car.

Now, some of the rigor of this training process was this trainer that we had, and I don't recall his name right now, but he used to like to tell us about the job of serving the public for the Pullman Company.

He said, look, you're going to run into some indignities, and you don't have to accept them. He said, whenever any passenger makes you unhappy about anything, he said you can just speak your mind. You don't have to take that stuff, but you wait until you get back in the men's room by yourself.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NORRIS: So have your words, but just do it on your own time.

Mr. ROLLINS: Right.

NORRIS: Were there indignities? Did you experience discrimination?

Mr. ROLLINS: Yes, we did. There was plenty of that, but it didn't happen a lot to me because I liked to think that I approached them with an attitude that I was there to serve them and willing to do it, but I wasn't willing to be humiliated, and so we got along very well. I didn't have a lot of unhappy experiences as a Pullman porter.

NORRIS: Are there moments even now, though, that you think back, and they still make you shudder a little bit?

Mr. ROLLINS: Oh Lord, yes. You would run into people who obviously had a mean streak in them toward black people, and most of them - I have to say most of those people, of course, would come from the South. Particularly when they would have a few drinks, they'd like to tell these race jokes. Of course, I always showed resentment, and they could tell that pretty quickly.

And one of the indignities that I suffered frequently was the voice that I have, and they thought I had a singing voice, and it turns out that I can't sing a note. They would say, sing for us. And I said, but I can't sing. And of course, they'd say, oh, using the N-word, can sing and dance.

There weren't a lot of unhappy moments in that. Like I say, I somehow made contact with them very early that I was willing to serve them but wasn't willing to be a showman.

Then there was the outstanding one that stayed in my mind of the time when we picked up a bunch of youngsters at Fort Bragg and took them to Brownwood, Texas. These were a bunch of raw youngsters from the Carolinas and Virginia, I guess, and some from Alabama, and they were raw, and the first time they'd ever been on a train and all kinds of raw stuff about them.

And I used to have a little speech that I would make. I would walk into the car, and I'd say, may I have your attention, please. My name is Frank Rollins. If you can't remember that, that's okay. You can call me porter. It's right here on the cap. You can be able to remember that. Just don't call me boy, and don't call me George.

So with that understanding, everybody got quiet as a mouse, and then they started calling me Mr. Frank. And I said, no, you don't have to do that. Ordinarily, they would have been very high styling and made a black person's life a little miserable from their backgrounds, but somehow that initial meeting made us kind of close, so much so that we did the whole trip and got to the end, and one of them walked in as we were approaching the base where they were going and asked to have my porter's cap.

And I gave him the cap and thought he was just going to go out and clown with it. In about a half an hour, he came back and had almost $50 in the cap, and these were poor boys. They had thought so much of me that they had wanted to make this contribution, and they wrote a real nice letter that I'm trying to find to take to the celebration because I was very, very proud of that letter.

They all listed their names and gave a great compliment on the kind of service that I had given them on this trip. It really impressed me, and this was probably the only thing I kept from my days on the railroad.

NORRIS: When you go to Philadelphia this weekend for your special honor, what is this going to mean for you?

Mr. ROLLINS: It's a matter of reminiscing, recall. Both the dining car experience and the Pullman experience gave me much of the techniques in - of handling the public that I was able to use in later years when I went into business for myself.

I never forgot those attitudes of making people feel comfortable and making them like you. I remembered that, and I tried to teach that to my employees. And I think it was responsible for the modest success that I had in my business operation. But that training was useful to me. I never forgot it.

NORRIS: Frank Rollins, former Pullman porter. He spoke to us from Houston. He's one of a group of African-American former railroad employees being honored by Amtrak in Philadelphia tomorrow as part of National Train Day.

Amtrak reports it has no precise number of how many former Pullman porters are still alive. They have found about 20 of them. The company tells us that it is thought that fewer than 200 are still living.

(Soundbite of music)

NORRIS: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.