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

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    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.
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    The night train: A Pullman porter) makes up an upper berth aboard a train bound for Chicago. In the 1920s, the Pullman Company was the largest employer of blacks in the US.
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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.

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."

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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.

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Despite the degradation and continuing exploitation of these porters, who had to make beds, mend clothes, and shine shoes, they took their new paid positions with pride and dignity. "There were constant themes emerging as I learned about these men," says Lyn Hughes, founder of the A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum in Chicago, who delivered the keynote address at the reception held last week at Union Station in Washington, D.C. "Themes like self-pride, a belief in unity, a self-imposed standard of excellence, a dedication to the union and to the cause, and a commitment to family."

Led by A. Philip Randolph, these workers formed the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in 1925, the first African-American labor union in US history. (They were denied membership in almost all other unions.) After a long struggle, the Brotherhood won recognition, and in 1937 they negotiated a landmark contract with the Pullman Company, winning $2 million in pay increases, a shorter work week, and overtime pay. Few people realize that it was Randolph who organized the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, inviting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to deliver the keynote.

"They realized that their work had value," says Ms. Hughes. "They realized that their work provided money for the train companies. Passengers who rode the railroad and wanted to ride in the sleeping cars and dining cars, they liked the service they were provided, they liked how it made them feel, and it made them repeat customers."

Costen first put on the Pullman uniform a few years after King's famous speech, when the era of porter service – and luxury passenger trains – was near its end. But he did reap the benefits of almost 100 years of this labor history. He generally made $832 in a two-week period, and he says he often doubled that in tips, easily making him one of the highest earners of his college peers. "I think I was one of only four students who had a car on campus," he laughs.

As chair-car porter, Costen would be responsible for three cars, usually about 200 passengers. After carrying their luggage on board, he provided pillows and offered passengers a pillow case for 35 cents. "Usually, people gave you a dollar and said keep the change," he says. "But I remember one guy giving me a $100 bill, and saying, 'Keep the change,' without even looking up."

His runs would take him through the mountains of Utah and Idaho, which he had never seen before. His favorite run was the 18-hour trip to Ogden, Utah. The train would leave late in the evening from Omaha, and arrive in Ogden around 6 p.m. "It was sort of like the Las Vegas strip, with all these restaurants and clubs. And we got to stay in a hotel, since the return didn't leave until the next morning," he says.

The run to Pocatella, Idaho, however, was a 23-hour trip that didn't arrive until midnight. The return left at 3 a.m., leaving the porters barely a few hours to sleep. "Sometimes I'd go 23 hours on the run to Pocatella, then sleep, or try to sleep, for three hours, and then work another 23 hours back," Costen says. "Then, when I'd pull into the station in Omaha, the dispatcher would ask me, 'You want to go back out?' The money was so good, I'd do another 23 hours, both ways, and end up working almost 4 days without much sleep."

Costen worked his way through college as a Pullman porter, but in 1969 the Buffalo Bills drafted him as a defensive end in the 14th round. He played through the preseason, scoring the first touchdown on a blocked punt against the New York Jets, and roomed with Al Cowlings, O.J. Simpson's close friend. Costen was injured, however, and the Bills released him before he played a regular season game.

Today Costen runs Sky Endeavors, a hot air balloon ride company, and says it's the best job he's ever had. He pauses. "But being a porter was the second best job I ever had."

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