The Pullman Porters

If you have ever taken an extended cross country trip by rail you quickly realize it is the best way to see and appreciate this vast land.

Pullman porters were men hired to work on the railroads as porters on sleeping cars. Shortly after the American Civil War, George Pullman sought out former slaves to work on his sleeper cars. Pullman porters served American railroads for 100 years from the late 1860s until late in the 20th Century. Until the 1960s, Pullman porters were exclusively African Americans.

Under the leadership of A. Philip Randolph, Pullman porters formed the first all-black union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in 1925. Formation of the union was instrumental in the advancement of the Civil Rights Movement. A. Philip Randolph began organizing the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Using the motto "Fight or Be Slave," on August 25, 1925, 500 porters met in Harlem and decided to make an effort to organize. Under Randolph's leadership the first black union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, was formed and slowly working conditions and salaries improved.

The larger unions were not receptive to the new union for many years. By forming the first black labor union the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters AKA Pullman porters also laid the groundwork for the Civil Rights Movement, which began in the 1950s. Union organizer and former Pullman porter E. D. Nixon played a crucial role in organizing the landmark Montgomery Bus Boycott in Alabama in 1955. It was he who bailed Rosa Parks out of jail after she refused to move on the bus, and who selected her as the figure to build the boycott around.

The Pullman Company went out of business in 1969, and the railroads no longer followed the practice of hiring only black men as porters. In 1978, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters merged with the larger Brotherhood of Railway and Airline Clerks. Many people credit Pullman porters as significant contributors to the development of America's black middle class. In the late 19th century, Pullman porters were among the only people in their communities to travel extensively. Consequently, they became a conduit of new information and ideas from the wider world to their communities.

Many Pullman porters supported community projects, including schools, and saved rigorously to ensure that their children were able to obtain an education and thus better employment. The porter’s looked, listened and learned and made sure that the next generation understood the value of education. Many of the porters learned from the railroads wealthy white patrons to read publications like the NY Times and the Wall Street Journal and accordingly made many wise investments securing their legacy and the development of today’s African American middle class.

Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown were descendants of Pullman Porters.

For additional information on the Pullman Porters, we recommend the following link which is a fascinating lecture by Larry Tye author of “Rising From the Rails”: