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America on the Move
Collection Exhibition Themes
Transportation in America before 1876 Community Dreams: Santa Cruz, California, 1876 Delivering the Goods: Watsonville, California, 1895 A Streetcar City: Washington, D.C., 1900 People on the Move Americans Adopt the Auto Crossing the Country: Somewhere in Wyoming, 1903 The Connected City: New York, New York, 1920s The People's Highway: Route 66, 1930s-1940s Roadside Communities: Ring's Rest, Muirkirk, Maryland, 1930s Family Camping: York Beach, Maine, 1930s On the School Bus: Martinsburg, Indiana, 1939 Suburban Strip: Sandy Boulevard, Portland, Oregon, 1949 City and Suburb: Chicago and Park Forest, Illinois, 1950s On the Interstate: I-10, 1956-1990 Transforming the Waterfront: San Francisco and Oakland, California, 1960-1970 Going Global: Los Angeles Introduction The Salisbury Depot What Happened to Plessy? A Way of Travel Railroad Conductor Pullman Porter Carrying Everything Into Town--and Out Locomotive Engineer & Fireman Railroaders behind the Scenes Promoting Good Roads Spencer, an Industrial Community What Happened to the Railroads?
9: Lives on the Railroad: Salisbury, North Carolina, 1927

Pullman Porter

In the 1920s, the Pullman Company was the largest single employer of African American men. From the 1870s through the 1960s, tens of thousands worked for Pullman as sleeping-car porters. The feeling of sleeping-car luxury came from the porter. He “made down” berths at night and “made up” the berths into seating in the morning, helped with luggage, and answered passengers’ calls at any hour. Working 400 hours a month, porters earned better wages than most African Americans, but degrading conditions helped lead to the founding of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in 1925.

A Pullman porter 'makes down' a sleeping berth.
A Pullman porter "makes down" a sleeping berth.
A porter assists passengers boarding a train.
A porter assists passengers boarding a train.
Porter’s wool blanket, dyed blue, about 1930
Porter’s wool blanket, dyed blue, about 1930
According to Pullman service rules, passengers’ berth blankets were never to be mixed with those of porters. Pullman blankets, normally a salmon color, were dyed blue when worn out and then given to porters.
Porter’s brush

Brushing a passenger’s coat or suit, wiping cinders from handrails, and polishing shoes were all part of a porter’s duties.

Porter’s brush
Pullman carafe
Pullman carafe
Porters kept insulated bottles like this one full of ice water for passengers.
Porter's keys
Porter's keys
Keys for opening Pullman car doors, berths, and storage lockers were issued to porters, who were responsible for passengers’ security.
Porter's service card
Porter's service card

Service card for sleeping car, used by Lawrence W. Davis

In the Community

Although they were servants on the job, porters took pride in their professionalism. At home, they were respected members of their communities. Porters traveled extensively and connected their communities to a wider world. From the 1920s through the 1940s, porters helped southern blacks migrate by bringing back information on jobs and housing in the North. Porters were also involved in Civil Rights activity. Pullman porter E. D. Nixon helped plan the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott of 1955-56. Union leader A. Philip Randolph pressured President Franklin Roosevelt into issuing Executive Order 8802 in 1941. It barred discrimination in defense industries and created the Fair Employment Practices Committee. Later, Randolph was involved planning the 1963 civil rights march on Washington.

Lawrence W. Davis’s membership card, Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters
Lawrence W. Davis’s membership card, Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters

Formed in the 1920s, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters finally won recognition from the Pullman company in 1934.

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