Porters led way to new era in civil rights

Way Back When

Union: Sleeping car workers endured many indignities, yet the job represented a step up in status. Organizing improved their lot.

February 27, 1999|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

The Pullman porter was once one of America's most familiar and ubiquitous figures. His gentle smile and willingness to please rail travelers, however, belied the pain that lay behind that welcoming countenance.

It was a protracted labor struggle that eventually led A. Philip Randolph to form the International Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first black labor union with an international charter from the American Federation of Labor in 1925. It was a move that would form the basis of the civil rights struggle of the 1950s and 1960s.

"Pullman porters lived and worked in an era of American history that stretches from the Civil War to the conflict in Vietnam," wrote Jack Santino in his 1989 book, "Miles of Smiles, Years of Struggle: Stories of Black Pullman Porters."

"As black workers serving a rich white clientele, they came to symbolize a golden age of rail transportation. In the 1920s, while images in books, movies, and popular songs were defining them as grinning, shuffling servants, Pullman porters organized what would become this country's first successful black labor union.

"[P]orters withstood physical abuse, job insecurity, intimidation, and brute force to triumphantly assert their essential dignity and to claim their rights as human beings."

"The lowly humble African American sleeping car porter perfected four-star service and the art of hospitality, and the service they provided made Pullman rich," says former porter Donald Hughes of Columbia. Also the son of a Pullman porter, he worked from 1975 to 1978 aboard the Pullmans of the Southern Railroad's crack Crescent Limited.

"I rode on the coattails of those old-time porters. By my time, there was respect between the passengers and porters.

"However," laments Hughes, "young people today need to know what they endured and it is a legacy that I want to help pass along."

Today, Hughes will join other veteran Pullman porters, dining car personnel and other railroaders at 3 p.m. at the B&O Railroad Museum in Baltimore, to talk about their various careers.

Author Santino saw the porter's role this way:

"To whites, porters represented service and luxury; to blacks, he represented status and mobility, both physical and social. One porter phrases it this way: `I used to wave at the white-suited porters when the train ran through, and I left South Carolina to get one of those jobs. Neckties were mandatory, and you have to understand, blacks were elated to get out of denims.' Denims were field clothes, work clothes that reminded the men of slavery; the clean, crisp uniforms of the Pullman porters were seen as genuine status symbols, a major advance."

It was E.D. Nixon, a Pullman porter and resident of Montgomery, Ala., who organized the famous 1955 bus boycott after Rosa Park's arrest. He told Santino, "The hours were long, see. It weren't nothing for a Pullman porter to make three or four hundred hours a month. To be able to do what the Pullman Company wanted him to do he had to make at least eleven thousand miles a month or the hours it takes to make those eleven thousand miles.

"And then if you went over that and made an extra one thousand miles, they give you a dollar for it. Pat you on the back and say you done well and give you an extra dollar for a thousand miles."

Santino recounts the continual affronts to the porters' dignity. When an insulting and drunken passenger verbally attacked a porter, he replied with these carefully chosen words, "Pardon me, do you wish me to answer you as a servant or answer you as a man?"

It was against this backdrop of long sleepless days and nights, weeks away from home and low pay, that motivated A. Philip Randolph, who was not a Pullman porter, to organize a handful of disgruntled Harlem porters into the union that became the International Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.

One of the first things the new union accomplished was having the Pullman Co. banish the practice of having all porters addressed as "George." Names of porters in charge of sleepers were to be prominently displayed.

However, it wasn't until 1937 that Randolph was successful in unionizing the Pullman Co.

"When the Pullman Company saw that Mr. Randolph had enough votes to win the election to have the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters represent the Pullman porters, they sent him a blank check," wrote Troy Brailey, a former porter and former member of Maryland's House of Delegates. "He could have sold out the Pullman porters for a price. Instead, he exposed the company."

There were also female members who worked as Pullman maids, car cleaners and porterettes, who formed the Ladies' Auxiliary to the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.

Melinda Chateauvert, author of "Marching Together: Women of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters," published last year, describes the auxiliary as the "distaff side" of the union.

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