Clarence King presented himself to Ada Copeland as Pullman porter James Todd with good reason; at the turn of the 20th twentieth century, only black men were hired as sleeping car porters. Introducing himself as a man of this profession would leave no doubt of his race, regardless of the color of his skin.
Developed by George Pullman in the mid-nineteenth century, the Pullman sleeping car was a luxurious addition to rapidly proliferating rail travel. Compartments outfitted with bunks allowed passengers to sleep during the night, making long trips far more comfortable.
Many of the attendants, or porters, who serviced these new rail cars were freed slaves, making the occupation of Pullman porter one of the most common for black workers; at the height of the railway era in the 1920s, the Pullman company employed about 20,000 porters. The positions' wages and working conditions were preferred to agricultural labor, and many industrial jobs began to open to African Americans only in the interwar period. Simply because it was better than the alternatives, though, does not mean the job of Pullman porter was an easy one.
The porters performed emotionally and physically taxing work for longer hours than most of us can imagine today, often providing around-the-clock service for their passengers. Under the leadership of A. Philip Randolph, the Porters established the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first African American labor union chartered under the American Federation of Labor, in 1925. After twelve years of tough negotiations, the BSCP won a collective bargaining agreement with the Pullman company, a major milestone in U.S. labor history.
Visit the A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum for more about the Pullman porters.
Top: George Pullman. Middle: A Pullman porter. Bottom: A. Philip Randolph
This article was originally published in April 2009, and has been updated for the
January 2010 paperback release.
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