Saturday, January 16, 2021

Pullman Porters and the Black Middle-Class

*A couple of years after the Civil War, a Chicago businessman by the name of George M. Pullman had begun hiring thousands of former slaves to serve White passengers that traveled in luxurious railroad sleeping cars. While these people were overworked and underpaid, they also endured never-ending racism on the job and these Pullman porters eventually fueled the Great Migration. This was when the Black middle class began taking shape and was launched towards forming the civil rights movement.

The Pullman Palace Car Company Rises

As the railroads were expanding across America, in 1859, Pullman convinced Chicago and Alton Railroad to convert their 2 old passenger cars into much better sleepers. These were much more luxurious and comfortable than the average sleeping cars and they became an instant hit.

Only the wealthiest passengers could afford their amenities and the surprising part was that all of them were accustomed to allowing middle-class to enjoy the taste of a great life. The first-ever Pullman porter had begun working aboard sleeper cars around about 1867. After him, these Pullman porters had become a constant presence in the company’s very sought-after traveling experience.

In the manner that all the trained conductors were White, Pullman had only recruited Black men – most of which were former slaves of the South. Their job description was to clean and set up sleeping berths, shine shoes, lug baggage, and serve passengers.

The Pullman Porters Mover Up in the World

Working as Pullman porters had become an established career and even a coveted job. Many sons, brothers, and grandsons of porters had managed to fill these jobs and many were even paid more than the Black workers of the time. The work wasn’t even that backbreaking as opposed to field labor. Other than this, these workers got to travel many parts of the country – which was quite unthinkable for Black Americans at the time.

As they became famous for their superior services, many of these porters had moved onto working at finer restaurants and hotels. Some had even moved onto work at the White House! A porter named J. W. Mays had served President William McKinley for his sleeping car and then moved up to spend about 4 decades in the White House to serve 8 more presidents who followed.

This is when Pullman porters moved onto form the first-ever All-Black Union and Edgar D. Nixon was the Pullman porter who was quite instrumental in starting the bus boycott following Rosa Parks’ arrest. He even enlisted a young minister to organize the events in his absences – and the minister’s name was Martin Luther King Jr.

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