Founding of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP)
In the summer of 1925, A. Philip Randolph received an invitation to speak to a group of porters from the Pullman Palace Car Company. This Chicago-based company hired mainly African American men to serve white passengers aboard its luxury railroad sleeping cars. Pullman porters were generally paid far lower wages than white workers and subjected to punishing working hours and conditions. After the Porters met crushing defeats at the hands of the Pullman Company, in their attempts to organize, the porters turned to Randolph. He had previously worked with hotel workers in their pursuit to organize. After this initial meeting, Randolph agreed to help organize the Porters into the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BCSP), which became the nation’s first predominantly Black labor union. Finally, after thirteen grueling years fighting for the rights of the Pullman Porters and fending off the attacks of one of the most powerful corporations in America at that time and perhaps the largest employer of African Americans, he secured the first-ever collective bargaining agreement with a major corporation in 1937. Remember Goliath, this (the Pullman Company) was the first of many giants.
Rise of the Pullman Palace Car Company
In 1859, as the railroads were expanding their reach across America, Pullman convinced the Chicago, Alton, and St. Louis Railroad to let him convert two old passenger cars into new and improved sleepers. These more comfortable, luxurious sleeping cars were an instant hit, affording wealthier passengers the amenities they were accustomed to at home and allowing middle-class travelers to enjoy the good life.
When Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, a little-known man from upstate New York, George M. Pullman, stepped onto the stage by designing a palace railcar to transport the slain president back to where his legal career began, the state of Illinois. A few years after the Civil War, the Chicago businessman George M. Pullman started hiring thousands of African American men—including many formerly enslaved people—to serve white passengers traveling across the country on his company’s luxury railroad sleeping cars.
The first Pullman porter began working aboard the sleeper cars around 1867 and quickly became a fixture of the company’s sought-after traveling experience. Just as all of his specially trained conductors were white, Pullman recruited only Black men, many from the former slave states in the South, to work as porters. Their job was to lug baggage, shine shoes, set up and clean the sleeping berths and serve passengers.
The Perfect Servants
George Pullman was open about his reasons for hiring Negro porters: He reasoned that formerly enslaved people would know best how to cater to his customers’ every whim, and they would work long hours for cheap wages. He also thought that Black porters (especially those with darker skin) would be more invisible to his white upper- and middle-class passengers, making it easier for his white customers to feel comfortable during their journey.
Pullman was looking for people who had been trained to be the “perfect servant.” Pullman knew the porters would come cheap, and he paid them next to nothing. He also knew these men would never embarrass the company or his guest for the threat of severe reprisal from the company. All of this occurred during the period of Reconstruction.
But despite the undeniable racism behind Pullman’s employment practices, he gave advantages to people who desperately needed them. In the early 1900s, when many other businesses wouldn’t hire African Americans, the Pullman Company became the largest single employer of Black men in the country. One interesting fact perhaps little known is after George Pullman died, he was succeeded by the son of the man who, in theory, freed the enslaved people (Abraham Lincoln). The next Pullman Company President was Robert Todd Lincoln, the firstborn of Abraham Lincoln, and for all intents and purposes, re-imposed slavery to the newly hired Pullman porters. A twist of Irony for sure. Robert Lincoln retired as CEO in 1922, three years before A. Philip Randolph began organizing the Pullman Porters.
By the 1920s, 20,224 African Americans were working as Pullman porters and training personnel, and this was the largest category of Black labor in the United States and Canada at the time.
Pullman Porters: 1863-1963
100 years of Service under some of the harshest conditions since slavery. Pullman Porters were harbingers of change against all odds. In 1863 President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which in theory, freed the enslaved people in the southern Confederate states during the civil war. Subsequently, thousands were hired as Pullman Porters. In 1963, A. Philip Randolph and the Pullman porters led the march on Washington D.C. for jobs and freedom, culminating at the Lincoln Memorial. For 100 years, the unceasing efforts of Pullman Porter’s activism were threaded into the American persona, working not only on behalf of the cause of equal rights for African Americans but for all oppressed people, as was reflected in the diversity of the 250,000 that marched in support of the 1963 Jobs and Equality agenda.
While they were underpaid and overworked and endured constant racism on the job, the Pullman porters would eventually help to fuel the Great Migration to the north, shape a new Black middle class and launch the civil rights movement. Another note to mention was the great Paul Robeson portrayed a Pullman Porter in the London staging of “Emperor Jones.”
Have you ever been frustrated by the lack of customer service from those you give your hard-earned money?
Have you ever called a utility or big box store or the local business around the corner, only to be put on hold or in a queue for an aggravatingly long period with the music you don’t care for and would never listen to? Well, you’re not alone. That is all but the norm these days. There was, however, a time when superior customer service was the norm. I submit that the humble Pullman porter living almost exclusively on tips invented and perfected 5-star service. This had been beaten into them at the hands of cruel enslavers and passed on to generations that followed, especially the Pullman Porters. So, the next time you are placed on hold for what seems like an eternity, think of the Pullman porter, who, out of necessity, not only was determined to exceed customer expectations but further defined and delivered the level of service that put customer service in the forefront of American business.