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 porter assists passengers boarding a train.
Porters 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.
Brushing a passengers coat or suit, wiping cinders from handrails, and polishing shoes were all part of a porters duties.
Porters kept insulated bottles like this one full of ice water for passengers.
Keys for opening Pullman car doors, berths, and storage lockers were issued to porters, who were responsible for passengers security.
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. Daviss 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.