There once was a job that was critical to the nation's infrastructure and the spread of ideas and people across the nation, and it was done exclusively by African-American men. It also presented creative ways to work for a better world for everybody.
“We are born in a Pullman house, fed from the Pullman shops, taught in the Pullman school, catechized in the Pullman Church, and when we die we shall go to the Pullman Hell.” — Pullman workers
George Pullman was one of the most well-known capitalists and entrepreneurs during a time of few rights for workers and extreme inequality between the classes. He found his niche by making sleeping cars for the newly expanding post-Civil War railroad system that brought people to various places in the country on a much more frequent basis. He sought to improve that system with luxury sleeping cars so rail travel would be much easier and more pleasant. He added multiple layers of service over the next decades, including gourmet meals, ultra-clean cars, opulent furnishings, and most importantly, very professional staff to make the travelers feel pampered.
Sleeping cars existed before Pullman, but he turned them into an extravagant mode of travel that the newly emerging middle class and the wealthy wanted to experience. He made his first luxury car around the end of the Civil War, and in fact, his first Pullman train car was the one that brought Abraham Lincoln’s body home to Illinois from Washington; it was a brilliant form of advertising, and it worked, since it was seen by millions. Orders piled up overnight from train companies.
One of the key features of Pullman trains was the service. Pullman hired thousands of former slaves who had the experience of “serving” masters and their families, which translated to the clientele. But there was a strict divide among the labor: White conductors collected tickets and sold upgrades along the routes, while African-American porters carried luggage, cleaned the cars, shined shoes, cooked and served meals, and made travelers feel pampered. In addition to this divide was one of wages — white workers received on average six times as much as the porters, which meant the porters relied heavily on tips.
Meanwhile, next to the factory where he made these luxury train cars in Chicago, Pullman built housing, grocery stores, and just about everything else his workers would want. It sounds convenient, right? But company towns like this were prime opportunities for Pullman to screw his workers over by raising prices and rents at will, punishing and evicting anybody who dared to try to improve conditions or wages, and more. He prohibited independent newspapers and public speeches by the residents. His staff regularly inspected the workers’ housing to make sure that they were clean and could evict anybody with a few days’ notice.
All of this, plus a reduction in wages for longer work hours after the 1893 depression hit, resulted in a massive strike in 1894 that was ended by federal troops, ordered by President Grover Cleveland.
The real profit for Pullman was in filling the rail cars and providing a high-end service that people would pay for. Pullman sleeping cars expanded to even more markets. At its peak in the 1920s, there were 20,000 porters on the job — the most African-Americans employed by any company in history. There were a few women working on these trains as well; about one maid for every 50 porters was an African-American woman.
One of the few well-paying jobs for African-American men at the time, it was rather a treasured position to get. But the work was grueling; 400 hours a month on the job or 11,000 miles of travel were the minimum to get full-time pay. Basically, they lived on the trains — for around $22,000 a year in today’s dollars, supplemented by tips. They paid for their own clothing and lodging on layovers, and if any of the passengers made off with pillows or blankets, it was taken from their pay.
But the work hours were one of the biggest problems. When they slept, it was on couches in the smoking car, hidden from the passengers. In other words, they couldn’t even use the sleeping cars when they got their average three hours of sleep per night.
Additionally, it was a common practice for the porters to be called either “George” or a commonly used racial slur that begins with the letter “N.” And, effectively, “George” meant the same thing.
From 1909 to 1913, porters tried unsuccessfully to unionize three times to address some of these issues. In response, the company began its own union, which was of course a sham. But it distracted the efforts of workers long enough that it delayed further efforts at unionizing for another 12 years.
In 1925, the fledgling union elected A. Philip Randolph to head up the unionizing drive. He was a highly skilled labor and community organizer but never a porter and hadn’t even ridden on a luxury train car because African-Americans were not allowed to ride on the very cars that the porters serviced.
The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters
As soon as the union was formed, it put together a list of demands of the Pullman company:
1. A significant pay raise
2. Abolishing the practice of tipping
3. Adequate rest breaks
4. Increasing pensions
5. A name card in each car with the actual name of the porter
Since tips would often be more than actual wages, it seems counterintuitive that they would want to abolish them, right? But in reality, to get those tips, workers had to be subservient and rigidly obedient to white clientele. Removing them and raising wages would effectively remove one of the more humiliating parts of their job.
Of course, the company refused and began firing and spying on the organizers and union sympathizers. Everything had to go underground, including secret handshakes and passwords. A ladies' auxiliary unit composed of the wives of porters was formed, which was arguably one of the most critical components of the secret operations. One thing working in their favor was that trains going from city to city across the country provided great opportunities for distribution of literature, news, job information, and more.
It took 12 years for the porters to succeed. One key to victory was the 1935 passage of the National Labor Relations Act (with some pressure by Franklin Delano Roosevelt), which gave unions legal legs when it came to organizing and prevented some of the company's intimidation tactics used to keep the union from forming. 1935 was the first negotiating session between the company and the union. That same year, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters became the first African-American union recognized by the American Federation of Labor (AFL). The union signed its first contract with Pullman in August 1937.
The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, fresh off a significant victory, went on to help integrate other jobs and unions across the country.
If you have the time (about a half-hour), here is an absolutely wonderful podcast from the folks at "Stuff You Missed in History Class."
It fills in a lot of fascinating details that complete the story nicely, including the achievements of the Brotherhood and A. Philip Randolph leading up to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s.
A final, rather fascinating note: George Pullman was so reviled by the people who worked for him that he left specific instructions to be entombed in concrete and steel so that workers wouldn’t defile his body.