From Publishers Weekly
What have the poet Claude McKay, the filmmaker Oscar Micheaux, the explorer Matthew Henson, the musician "Big Bill" Broonzy and college president Benjamin Mays in common? They all worked for the Pullman Company, which until 1969 owned the sleeper cars for and ran the sleeper service on the U.S. railroads, and was at one time "the largest employer of Negroes in America and probably the world." Blacks, preferably those with "jet-black skin," supplied "the social separation... vital for porters to safely interact with white passengers in such close quarters." Although Tye makes the general case for the centrality of "The Pullman Porter" in the making of the black middle class (and in much of American cultural life), the particular porter becomes supportive detail for a highly readable business history at one end and labor history at the other. Former BostonGlobe journalist Tye (The Father of Spin) interviewed as many surviving porters as he could find as well as their children, and immersed himself in autobiographies, oral histories, biographies, newspapers, company records—wherever the porter might be glimpsed, including fiction and film. Entertaining detail abounds: Bogart was a solid tipper; Seabiscuit traveled in a "specially modified eighty-foot car cushioned with the finest straw." So does informing detail: the long hours, the dire working conditions, the low pay, the lively idiom, the burdensome rules. While "The Pullman porter... was the only black man many [whites] ever saw," Tye shows what whites never saw—the grinding, often humiliating, realities of the job and the rippling effect of steady employment in the upward mobility of the porters' children and grandchildren. 40 b&w photos not seen by PW.
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Although Tye focuses on Pullman porters and the formation of the black middle class, his analysis of class perceptions and race relations reverberates to the current day. Following Reconstruction, industrialist George Pullman took advantage of the limited opportunities available for freedmen, hiring and exploiting blacks--the darker the better--to serve as porters on his railroad. The porters suffered low wages, long hours, and weeks if not months away from home. In addition, they were expected to adopt a servile demeanor to provide comfort to the mostly white patrons of the Pullman sleeping cars. But the upside was employment, travel, and middle-class values and opportunities. Moreover, the fight for union recognition through A. Phillip Randolph's leadership was the basis for progress for blacks during the pre-civil rights era. The porters' labor dispute and efforts to include blacks in more favorable positions in the war industry led to the first march on Washington. Tye also explores the tension between the perception of Pullman porters as docile servants and their challenge to the status quo. Vernon Ford
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