February marks Black History Month. Follow the AJC this month for a series of short stories and videos and people, places and events that played a significant role in the development of black people in America.
Pullman Porters: Of all the institutions credited with helping to build today’s black middle class, a bunch of men named “George,” don’t come to mind quickly. But shortly after the Civil War, just as railroads were beginning to carve up America, former slaves were hired to work as porters on the trains’ sleeping cars: Pullman Porters.
As they were just out of slavery and still part of the “subservient class,” the names of the porters were never bothered to be known by passengers, who simply called them all “George.”
In 1925, under the leadership of A. Philip Randolph, who would help organize the March on Washington 40 years later, the Pullman porters formed the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first all-black union. They worked long hours, didn’t make much money and depended heavily on tips, but for at least a century, the porters were one of the main builders of the black middle class.
The porters were active in helping to lay the foundation for the civil rights movement. In addition to Randolph's roll in the March on Washington, union organizer and former Pullman porter E.D. Nixon played a crucial role in organizing Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955, and it was he who bailed out Rosa Parks after she refused to vacate her seat on the bus.
Pullman porters were one of the few groups of blacks during that period that traveled the country extensively, allowing them to share news, develop ideas and bring them back to their communities – along with a steady paycheck.
And while the pay was low, being a Pullman porter was still one of the best jobs available to black men. Up until the 1960s, the ranks of Pullman porters were exclusively black, whose ranks included: Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, civil rights leader Benjamin Mays, Malcolm X and photojournalist Gordon Parks.