Obit of the Day: One of the Last of the Pullman Porters
George Pullman was quick to recognize an untapped resource widely available at the end of the Civil War - freed slaves. The sleeping car baron wanted to give his passengers a luxury experience - he called his cars “hotels on wheels” - and for that he wanted the best service. Mr. Pullman searched for men who were raised to be subservient and invisible and he found them in the South’s former slave population. The Pullman Porter was born.
By the peak of U.S. rail travel in the 1920s and ’30s, there were more than 20,000 Pullman Porters working the railways. Pullman was the biggest single employer of Black workers in the United States.
Often called “George,” a degrading custom that held from the antebellum South when slaves were called their master’s name*, these men were symbols of respect and mobility throughout Black communities nationwide. (They were noted for their role in encouraging the movement of Blacks from the South to the North during the Great Migration after World War II.) Paid far below a living wage, the porters were forced to live on tips from passengers which led to their legendary reputation for anticipating customer needs.
Milton Jones, a Chicago native, began working for Pullman in 1942. Working on various routes across the country, he often worked 20 hour shifts. In addition to the long hours, poor salary and demeaning names (Mr. Jones did once tell a passenger his actual name when he was called “George” and was reported for the action), he had to deal with other indignities that seem unconscionable today.
Porters paid for their own uniforms, were docked pay if passengers took any property from the cars, went unpaid for sleeping hours, and were forced to eat behind a black curtain in most dining cars to segregate them from white passengers. Mr. Jones felt the last was the most demeaning since passengers felt free to interact with the porters throughout the trip, but would not deign to watch them eat.
Mr. Jones recognized the opportunity working as a porter represented in a country where few Blacks traveled regularly. He would work as a porter for “37 years and 2 months,” first at Pullman until 1968 when the company went out of business as private rail travel plummeted with the expansion of airlines. He then would move to the Santa Fe rail which was consolidated into Amtrak in 1971. It was at that point that railways stopped hiring only Black porters. Mr. Jones retired in 1979.
Walter Jones, who drove until one day in 2012 when his wife of 58 years, Helen, asked “Aren’t you driving on the wrong side of the road?”, died on February 13, 2014 at the age of 98.
Sources: Chicago Sun-Times, Alicia Patterson Foundation, Google Books, and Wikipedia
(Image of an advertisement, circa 1942-1945, for Pullman sleeping cars focusing on the service of Pullman Porters. The ad reads, as best as I can tell, “Next time you take a trip, chances are you can ride in Pullman comfort. That’s because the way Pullman works with the railroads - through the centrally controlled “pool” of sleeping cars - makes it possible to take care of military needs and accommodate more civilians, too. So always ask for Pullman space when you plan to travel! We’ll welcome you aboard a Pullman sleeping car as we’ve welcomed aboard every Pullman passenger for more than 80 years - with service, comfort and safety, that no other way of going places fast can match.” The ad is courtesy of www.cruiselinehistory.com)
* Oddly enough calling the porters “George” angered another men who were actually named George and in 1914 Chicago lumber magnate George Delany formed the Society for the Prevention of Calling Sleeping Car Porters George. Created out of racism - white men did not want to be associated with lower-level Black porters - the group would have 33,000 members including Cardinal George Mundelein of Chicago, King George V, and George Herman “Babe” Ruth. The group forced Pullman in 1926 to place placards in every sleeping car giving the porters actual first and last name.
Ben Isaacs, the oldest known Pullman Porter who died at the age of 107