An engaging social history that reveals the critical role Pullman porters played in the struggle for African American civil rights
When George Pullman began recruiting Southern blacks as porters in his luxurious new sleeping cars, the former slaves suffering under Jim Crow laws found his offer of a steady job and worldly experience irresistible. They quickly signed up to serve as maid, waiter, concierge, nanny, and occasionally doctor and undertaker to cars full of white passengers, making the Pullman Company the largest employer of African American men in the country by the 1920s.
In the world of the Pullman sleeping car, where whites and blacks lived in close proximity, porters developed a unique culture marked by idiosyncratic language, railroad lore, and shared experience. They called difficult passengers "Mister Charlie"; exchanged stories about Daddy Jim, the legendary first Pullman porter; and learned to distinguish generous tippers such as Humphrey Bogart from skinflints like Babe Ruth. At the same time, they played important social, political, and economic roles, carrying jazz and blues to outlying areas, forming America's first black trade union, and acting as forerunners of the modern black middle class by virtue of their social position and income.
Drawing on extensive interviews with dozens of porters and their descendants, Larry Tye reconstructs the complicated world of the Pullman porter and the vital cultural, political, and economic roles they played as forerunners of the modern black middle class. Rising from the Rails provides a lively and enlightening look at this important social phenomenon.
What have the poet Claude McKay, the filmmaker Oscar Micheaux, the explorer Matthew Henson, the musician "Big Bill" Broonzy and college president Benjamin Mays in common? They all worked for the Pullman Company, which until 1969 owned the sleeper cars for and ran the sleeper service on the U.S. railroads, and was at one time "the largest employer of Negroes in America and probably the world." Blacks, preferably those with "jet-black skin," supplied "the social separation... vital for porters to safely interact with white passengers in such close quarters." Although Tye makes the general case for the centrality of "The Pullman Porter" in the making of the black middle class (and in much of American cultural life), the particular porter becomes supportive detail for a highly readable business history at one end and labor history at the other. Former BostonGlobe journalist Tye (The Father of Spin) interviewed as many surviving porters as he could find as well as their children, and immersed himself in autobiographies, oral histories, biographies, newspapers, company records wherever the porter might be glimpsed, including fiction and film. Entertaining detail abounds: Bogart was a solid tipper; Seabiscuit traveled in a "specially modified eighty-foot car cushioned with the finest straw." So does informing detail: the long hours, the dire working conditions, the low pay, the lively idiom, the burdensome rules. While "The Pullman porter... was the only black man many ever saw," Tye shows what whites never saw the grinding, often humiliating, realities of the job and the rippling effect of steady employment in the upward mobility of the porters' children and grandchildren. 40 b&w photos not seen by PW.