Five Things to Know About Pullman Porters

As the oldest Pullman porters die, it’s time to reflect on the proud legacy of these African-American workers

Pullman Porter
An unnamed Pullman porter works at Chicago's Union Station in 1943. Jack Delano/Library of Congress

His name was Lee Gibson—but for nearly 40 years, he was forced to respond to the name “George.” Gibson, who died Saturday at the age of 106, was thought to be the oldest surviving Pullman porter, as Ann M. Simmons writes for The Los Angeles Times. He was one of thousands of African-American men who made Pullman porters a ubiquitous part of American travel. But why is it worth eulogizing a profession that evaporated long ago?

Pullman porters were much more than men who carried bags to and fro for wealthy train riders of yore. For nearly 100 years, Pullman porters helped define rail travel within the United States. “They were highly respected within the community,” Spencer Crew, Robinson Professor of African-American history at George Mason University and a guest curator at the upcoming National Museum of African American History and Culture, tells “They became in many ways the middle-class of the African-American community.”

Pullman porters were so important that their stories are still sought out by historians eager to document their contributions before it’s too late. To understand their legacy in the United States, here are five things to know about Pullman porters:

The first Pullman porters were ex-slaves

George Pullman, an industrialist who pioneered the world’s first popular sleeper trains, was obsessed with bringing luxury and convenience to the growing railroad industry after the Civil War. He did so by building “palace cars” complete with chandeliers, comfortable beds, air conditioning, and gourmet meals served by former slaves turned porters.

Slaves had already done the hard work of building many of the United States’ railroad lines. Pullman, who was as shrewd a businessman as he was a showman, felt that servant-like attendants would give riders an even keener sense of comfort and self-indulgence. So he hired former slaves—known to be cheap workers—to staff his palace cars. As historian Larry Tye writes, the saying went, “Abe Lincoln freed the slaves and George Pullman hired 'em.”

They were forced to answer to the name “George” 

Just because slavery had ended, that didn’t mean that the job of a Pullman porter was dignified. Pullman porters were often addressed by the name “George”—a name that was based in the social standards of slavery itself. As Lawrence Tye writes for the Alicia Patterson Foundation, at some point porters began to be addressed by their employer’s first name, just as a slave would be addressed by his master’s name before emancipation.

This humiliation was heightened by the seemingly endless job description porters were expected to fulfill. As the Museum of the American Railroad notes, Pullman porters were “essentially at the beck and call of first-class passengers” but expected to be “otherwise invisible.” They did everything from shining shoes to carrying baggage to making beds. In some cases, they were even forced to sing and dance by condescending customers.

Pullman porters occupied a special place within the African-American community

Despite routine discrimination, a job at Pullman had real benefits. Pullman porters were well-traveled and rubbed shoulders with America’s elites. They were what Crew calls “a conduit into what the larger society might be thinking and doing.”

Crew compares the information that Pullman porters of the early 20th century circulated from their travels to doing what social media allows for today. Because they visited so many places, they were able to bring back recommendations, experiences and information to the African-American community.

“Train travel was a primary mode of transportation in this country up until the 1950s,” says Crew. In a time when many black men lacked mobility and steady work, Pullman porters were vital sources of community information.

“Pullman porters would bring African-American newspapers like the Chicago Defender or Pittsburgh Courier back to their communities," Crew tells Those newspapers, he said, gave Southerners information on how and where they could escape the segregation and violence they experienced at home.

The job was demanding and demeaning...

Long hours and low pay also came with the Pullman porter job description. Porters depended on patrons for tips and were thought of, in the words of historian Greg LeRoy, “as a piece of equipment, just like another button on a panel.”

They were required to work 400 hours a month and often had to work 20-hour shifts with only three or four hours of sleep in between. They had to pay for their own food, do unpaid prep work and supply their own uniforms. And they did it all in railroad cars in which they themselves would not have been allowed to travel in during Jim Crow segregation. (When it opens this fall, the National Museum of African American History and Culture will feature a segregated Pullman car that demonstrates the conditions in which black passengers were forced to travel while black Pullman porters attended to white guests.)

…so Pullman porters unionized

In 1925, a group of porters decided they’d had enough. They went to A. Philip Randolph, a prominent labor rights advocate, and asked him to help them form a union. The union included a little-celebrated group of Pullman workers—female maids who were often expected to spend time babysitting white children on the job.

The union they formed, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, faced staunch opposition from the Pullman Company. Black community members who thought of the Porter job as a respectable one also fought back, and the company attempted to sway the African-American community to bust the union.

It took more than a decade for the union to sign a labor agreement with Pullman, but when it did the union won both recognition and better conditions. It was the first African-American labor union to succeed in brokering a collective bargaining agreement with a major corporation—a win that helped lay the foundation for the future Civil Rights era.

Though those social gains had a cost, Crew sees the Pullman porters as part of a larger context of African-American mobility and community. “They figured out how to understand the mores of the larger society and maintain a sense of dignity,” he tells That history—one of resilience, resistance and pride—is well worth remembering.

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