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Pullman porters tell tales of a train ride through history

Working the sleeping car was one of the best jobs African Americans could get after the Civil War. Though it involved serving well-off whites, the Pullman Company helped create the first black middle class in America.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / February 29, 2008

Former porters (from left) Bill Costen, Thomas Dunn, and E. Donald Hughes II were honored by Amtrak in a ceremony this week at Washington's Union Station.

courtesy of william leak/amtrak

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Back in the summer of 1965, a few months before he would start his first year of college at the University of Nebraska, Bill Costen was thrilled about his new summer job. On his first day, he put on the uniform that had been a symbol of status and pride for African-American men for more than a century: a pressed white jacket, a black tie, and the visored hat of the Pullman porter.

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He had grown up in Omaha, Neb., the hub of the legendary Union Pacific Railroad, and both his grandfather and father had worked on the westward-bound trains that helped transform the country after the Civil War. But for Mr. Costen, a successful high school football player, this was his chance to experience a new kind of adventure.

"I had never seen the West," he says now as he sits on Amtrak's Washington-bound Acela Express. "So I was very excited on my first trip. I got to meet and talk with people – I had a lot of talking relationships with people. And I was so big – I played football – that I was sort of like a celebrity. When businessmen, sports enthusiasts would ask me if I played, I'd have a captive audience for most of the day."

This week, Amtrak teamed with the Chicago-based A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum to honor the African-American men who helped define the bygone era of romance and luxury on America's passenger trains.

The little-known history of the Pullman porters, who for more than a century provided the top-notch service demanded by Pullman Palace Cars and their mostly well-to-do white passengers, reveals in many ways the first emergence of a black middle class in the United States and the first foundation for a generation of black leaders in the 20th century. Thurgood Marshall and his father both worked as Pullman porters, as did Malcolm X and the distinguished photo journalist Gordon Parks.

Being a train porter was one of the first relatively well-paying jobs for former slaves after the Civil War, and by the mid-1920s, peak years for passenger trains, more than 20,000 African-American men were employed as Pullman porters and other types of train personnel, the largest category of black labor in the United States and Canada at the time.

"We had it relatively easy compared to the gentlemen who came at the tail end of the Emancipation Proclamation," says E. Donald Hughes, another former Pullman porter. "The sleeping car porter had to endure all manner of horrendous treatment.... And yet, in the black community, they were the highest you could be. When they put on that uniform, they were larger than life. And yet, in the white community, they were still the lowest of the low."

Indeed, when George Pullman first developed the "Pullman sleeper" or "Pullman Palace Car," he marketed it as "luxury for the middle class." In the decades after the Civil War, he went south to recruit the best and brightest former slaves to work on these rolling five-star hotels, men who had already been trained to perform the service duties he required.