Pullman Porters Helped Build Black Middle Class Porters combined their meager salaries with tips, and saved to put their children and grandchildren through college, says author Larry Tye. But their early unionizing efforts also laid the groundwork for the civil rights movement.

Pullman Porters Helped Build Black Middle Class

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

When Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a bus, she made a phone call that reveals a lot about the Civil Rights Movement. She called E. D. Nixon, local head of a modest sounding union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Historian Larry Tye says it was the right call.

Mr. LARRY TYE (Historian, Author): She calls Nixon and Nixon turns around and calls 13 of the leading ministers in Montgomery. Number three or four on his list was a young guy named Martin Luther King.

INSKEEP: Rosa Parks called on a group that played a powerful role in African American life for a century. Pullman Porters will be honored this weekend as part of Amtrak's National Train Day. In a time when train travel took days, the porters worked in sleeping cars made by inventor George Pullman. Larry Tye's book, "Rising From the Rails" says they made the most of a lowly job.

Mr. TYE: They were the guys who, when you did this long trip across country on these very elegant Pullman sleeping cars - you were in magnificent surroundings, you had a very comfortable place to sleep, you were fed the best food - but the thing that you most remembered was these extraordinary black men who waited on you. They did everything from acting as chamber maid to a waiter. They were the people who came in and made your trip guaranteed to be comfortable.

INSKEEP: Now I want to talk about that a little bit more. George Pullman, he's the guy who invented this kind of sleeping car that became extraordinarily popular for about a century or so, why did he decide that this was a black man's job?

Mr. TYE: He was looking for people who had been trained to be the perfect servant, and these guys' backgrounds was, as having been chattel slaves, and he knew that they knew just how to take care of any whim that a customer had. He knew they would come cheap, and he paid them next to nothing. And he knew there was a never a question, off the train, that you would be embarrassed by running into one of these Pullman Porters and having them remember something that you did that you didn't want your wife or your husband, perhaps, to remember during that long trip. These guys lived in a different social universe and that was just what George Pullman wanted.

INSKEEP: Can I just point out the irony here, because it seems that George Pullman for the most appalling racist reasons, ended up giving great opportunities to the most disadvantaged people.

Mr. TYE: It was an extraordinary irony. By the early 1900s, George Pullman was the largest employer of black men in the country, and he gave them the best jobs that a black man could have in those years, because it was not back-breaking work and it paid relatively well, and it let you see the country - was being a Pullman porter.

INSKEEP: What did Pullman porters do with the money that they earned?

Mr. TYE: Well, they supported their families back home, but most importantly, they learned these critical lessons by riding on the trains and watching the way their very wealthy white passengers behaved. They learned the importance of education. And in extraordinary doses, the Pullman porters saved the money they had and put their kids and grandkids through college and graduate school, which they saw as the road to ensure that their kids wouldn't end up working on the trains the way they did.

INSKEEP: Is this was former porters told you when you interviewed them?

Mr. TYE: This is what former porters told me. It was this great untold story that was waiting there to be tapped, of just how Pullman porters lived their lives. And it was their kids and grandkids, guys like Tom Bradley and Willie Brown, Oscar Peterson in music, Thurgood Marshall, the first black Supreme Court Justice - all of these were the children and grandchildren of Pullman Porters and train porters who helped shape a black professional class.

INSKEEP: You said when you were looking into this that it felt like an untold story. Did the porters not get the credit they deserved?

Mr. TYE: I think that most of the porters were ready to go to their death without having told their story. It wasn't just that I didn't know their story and most of America didn't, it was that their own sons and daughters and grandchildren didn't know their story. And it was like having to pry out the stories of some of the humiliations that they had suffered and the pain they had gone through to get them to talk about this.

INSKEEP: Humiliations - you mean working this very subservient job?

Mr. TYE: I mean working a subservient job where they were called boy, they were called the N word, and worst of all for them, they were called George. And that was part of the insidious tradition of slaves being named after their slave masters and passengers for an entire generation, almost without realizing what they were doing, would refer to porters as George as if they were the slaves of George Pullman.

INSKEEP: Hmm. How many Pullman porters have you interviewed?

Mr. TYE: I interviewed about 40 of them.

INSKEEP: And can you think of a story that one of those old men told you?

Mr. TYE: Yeah, if you have a second, I'd love to tell you my favorite story of the Pullman porters, and it actually goes back to the year 1918 in the small town that few people had heard of back then of Freeport, Maine. And the little kids in Freeport, Maine set up a makeshift baseball field.

One day, a boy named Hank Sewell(ph) hit a towering shot up over second base. And behind second base happened to be where the railroad tracks ran, and there was a Pullman train on its way from Boston heading north. And there was a tall, black Pullman porter out on the deck of this train. And just as Hank Sewell's towering shot starting coming back towards the ground, this Pullman Porter stuck up his hand and he caught the baseball.

These kids were in awe, partly because somebody had caught their baseball, and partly 'cause they had almost never seen a black man in their lives. And the awe quickly turned to anger as this black man continued on towards Halifax with their one baseball in their hand.

Two weeks later, they were back out and the same railroad car came through, the same Pullman porter standing on the deck, and he tossed them a baseball. And they noticed when they caught the baseball, that there was some scribbling on this baseball. And they saw the name of a guy named Schang who was, in the 1918 Boston Red Sox, the catcher. And they saw the name of the shortstop, and they saw the name of a pitcher and sometimes outfield named George Herman Babe Ruth.

Now any baseball fan knows that this 1918 team was an extraordinary World Series winning team. And every day that that train came through for the next several months, this tall, black Pullman porter would be on the deck and he'd throw them another baseball.

The extraordinary thing is the kids never thought to ask who that guy was. And it turned out that he lived in a town right next door, that he had a family -they were among the only blacks who lived in Maine at that time - and he had an extraordinary story.

But like most of white America that watched these Pullman porters go by, they were almost part of the furnishings, which is just what George Pullman had intended. They never had a sense of them as being real human beings with stories of their own, with kids of their own, with a history that we have been talking about here today that was quite extraordinary.

INSKEEP: Well, Larry Tye, thanks very much.

Mr. TYE: Thank you for having me.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: Music by Oscar Peterson, son of a Pullman Porter. More Larry Tye at npr.org. It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

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