How Traveling by Train Led Me to Learn About My Family's Black History

Discover the Pullman porters and their connection to Black history in the U.S.

Photo collage showing Black American sleeping car porters throughout history with small illustrated trains and the union flag.
Photo: Photo Illustration by Mariah Tyler (Source Images: Bettmann Archive via Getty Images; Heritage Art/Heritage Images via Getty Images; Camerique/ClassicStock/Getty Images)

"From the time I was born, all I knew was the train station," my 87-year-old godmother, my Nana, echoed over the phone. We were swapping train stories. I recently took a solo 52-hour train ride from Chicago to California on Amtrak's California Zephyr. The entire trip was exhilarating. I shared my experience of staying in a roomette, eating in the dining section, and riding in the observation car through the Rocky Mountains. But my godmother remembers train travel differently during the era of the Pullman porters.

The Pullman porters were Black sleeper car attendants who worked for the Pullman Company. After the Civil War, George Pullman employed 20,000 formerly enslaved Black men to staff his luxurious sleeper cars, or "rolling hotels," as some referred to them. The Pullman porters shined shoes, cooked meals, and made beds for wealthy white train travelers. They also assisted passengers with their luggage on and off the train, catering to their every need. Trains simply would not have functioned without them.

Three images showing Pullman Porters working in uniform, all Black Americans.
From Left: Six Black Pullman Company railway porters line up for a photography outside of the train in 1910. Pullman porter Parish Jones busy polishing soldiers shoes while troops back in the car are asleep in 1942. A porter on a Pullman car, a railroad sleeping car. Chicago, Illinois, ca. January-February 1943. Photo Illustration by Mariah Tyler (Source Images: Minnesota Historical Society/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images; CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images; Bettmann/CORBIS/Bettmann Archive)

That value did not translate to ideal working conditions. During their 13-hour days, the Pullman porters faced discrimination and racism. They could serve white people, but not talk to them. Instead of learning their names, passengers referred to the porters as George, their employer. And while the company paid them $120 every two weeks, they were required to work 400 hours, roughly 11,000 miles, per month.

Nana had similar memories. She and her mother rode the train for free, given her father's employment as a waiter. He would be gone for weeks at a time. Since it was unsafe for Black people to travel via car due to Jim Crow and sundown towns, her family's only form of transportation was the railroad. Nana and her mother often traveled from Detroit to Ohio, and even as far as Tennessee and Alabama. On her rides, Nana noted the segregation between white and Black travelers. "White folks had sleeper cars. We didn't have sleeper cars; we slept on benches," she said.

Fed up with the poor working conditions and discrimination, the Pullman porters enlisted A. Philip Randolph to help them unionize. Using his organizing expertise and magazine The Messenger, Randolph fought to raise awareness for the Pullman porters' cause. Dismissing threats and bribes to stop, Randolph and the porters never wavered. It took 12 years and hundreds of porters fired for their involvement for the Pullman Company to recognize the union. Finally, in 1925, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, as they're now known, successfully became the first Black union in the United States.

Three images. Top left: Color photograph of Black train porters in red uniforms. Bottom Left: Men holding US flag and Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Right: Portrait of A. Philip Randolph
Counter Clockwise: Scene on a station platform of three African American porters talking outside of a train car entrance, July, 1969. Members of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first successful African-American Labor Union, proudly display their banner at a 1955 ceremony celebrating the organization's 30th anniversary. Asa Philip Randolph (1889-1979), Union president, seen wearing black and white shoes, holds up Brotherhood flag. American labour leader A Philip Randolph (1889 - 1979), he founded and led the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and helped plan the March for Jobs and Freedom in Washington DC in 1963. Photo Illustration by Mariah Tyler (Source Images:Morse Collection/Gado/Getty Images;Bettmann/Getty Images; MPI/Getty Images)

But that was not their only impact. In the midst of fighting to be unionized, the Pullman porters used their position to their advantage. They distributed newspapers to Black Southerners on their routes, who did not have access to events and news about people in the north. The Pullman porters would throw these newspapers in certain spots, and as someone picked them up, the information was passed from family to family.

The Pullman porters' unionization also paved the way for the civil rights movement. Edgar D. "E.D." Nixon, the then-president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Montgomery and the local leader for the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, helped organize the Montgomery bus boycott. As a former Pullman porter, E.D. passed on what he learned from unionizing to guide his assistant in her efforts. That assistant was Rosa Parks. And since the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters held the better-paying jobs for Black people, which later led to creating the Black middle class, they helped raise money for the civil rights movement.

Two images. Left: A Black porter pours water for white passengers aboard train. Right: A large group of well-dressed Black Americans of all ages, ready to travel via train.
Photo Illustration by Mariah Tyler (Source Images:Joe Amon/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

It's true, U.S. train travel is not what it used to be. But we can't forget that it was a way of life for Black travelers such as my Nana. And for the Pullman porters, it was never just about trains. Though they were the foundation of U.S. train travel and carved a new lane for future social movements, they fought for the dignity of Black people to be affirmed and humanity to be reciprocated. They fought for the freedom of movement I have today as a Black traveler. So, the next time someone says, "Black people don't ride the train," think of my Nana, who said, "It's what we do."

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