George Pullman would have been one of the most consequential entrepreneurs in American history on the merits of his rail car empire and (failed) worker’s utopia alone. Add in the social revolution he put in motion and it’s a wonder Pullman is such a little known figure today. For indeed Pullman is one of the key figures in the history of American civil rights, directly responsible for the creation of the black middle class.
Er, how did that work, exactly, Joe? Well I’ll tell you. Having read the below posts on the rise of the Pullman sleeper car, you already know that Pullman’s company took off in earnest in 1867. That coincided neatly with the end of the Civil War and the freeing of Southern slaves, a large, and largely unemployed, pool of labor. Pullman recognized that freed slaves would make excellent stewards on his luxury train cars. Many were skilled in the fine points of table and bedside service, were well spoken and willing to work on the cheap.
Now if that all sounds racist and exploitative to you, you’re forgetting to consider the times. These were the very early days of post-war reconstruction, a time of great upheaval in America. The South was wrecked, an entire socio-economic model suddenly and abruptly halted, like a dump truck careening into the face of a cliff. Boom. Scattered among the wreckage were millions of destitute people, both white and black, fearful, angry, confused and frequently in conflict with one another.
Pullman’s porter positions offered former male slaves a way out of all that. They were the first paid, professional jobs that Southern blacks had ever known. Pullman porters were independent, dignified and wore crisp, clean uniforms. They traveled the nation and mixed with the American elite: politicians, industrialists, actors, musicians and later film stars and sports figures. Easy to see why Pullman porters quickly became heroes among the former slave community in the south.
Yes, they got paid comparatively little, but like today’s waiters and waitresses who make minimum wage (or below) as a base, the real money was in the tips. Pullman porters never became rich, but they did earn enough to buy houses, good clothes and educations for their wives and children, many of whom they moved out of the turbulent south. These families became the bedrock of thriving middle class communities in Northern cities. They took their money with them, and also their culture. Who brought the blues to Chicago? I’ll give you one guess!
But Pullman porters were more than an economic and cultural force in America, they were a political one as well. Compelled to work very long hours on very little sleep (there were no sleeping berths for the porters, who sometimes worked 24-hour shifts) the porters, under the leadership of A. Philip Randolph, formed a union. When that union was finally recognized by the Pullman Company in 1937, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters became the first black union in America. That union would go on to have considerable political influence in the middle years of the 20th Century.
As northern black communities began to develop in earnest and launch the modern civil rights movement, Pullman Porters became an instrumental communications network, especially in the South. Porters brought stories of political goings-on to their families and in time copies of black-run newspapers, also magazines like Ebony and Jet (both published in Chicago), none of which could legally cross the Mason-Dixon line. When Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to move to the back of the bus, it was local Pullman porter union leader E.D. Nixon who enlisted Martin Luther King and organized the famous Montgomery Bus Boycott, with the union providing political and financial support.
Of course the success of the Pullman porters was closely tied to that of the Pullman company. When its power and influence waned, so did that of the porters. Very few were left by 1970 when the Pullman company shuttered. But, over the course of 100 years Pullman’s porters served a vital purpose, giving poor black southerners the vision, the access and the means to attain the good life. No wonder why so many key black figures of the 20th century were the educated children of Pullman porters, from Thurgood Marshall to Malcolm X and many, many others.
It was a lot more than George Pullman ever envisioned when he decided to become the first man to employ former slaves en masse…but then again maybe not. No matter how you may view him, as a capitalist exploiter or as a social benefactor and visionary, you can’t deny the man thought big. George Pullman died in 1897. The last Pullman porter died some 115 years later, just last year, a man by the name of Ben Isaacs, at the age of 107. Isaacs was the last living member of a company — a social, economic and cultural team — that was founded 40 years before Isaacs was ever born, that did a lot of good and its share of bad, but in its own messy way carried America forward and changed the country for the better.