How Traveling by Train Led Me to Learn About My Family's Black History
"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.
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, hundreds of porters fired for their involvement, and the passing the Fair Employment Practices Act 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.
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.
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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