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Rising from the Rails: Pullman Porters and the Making of the Black Middle Class Hardcover – July 6, 2004

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Editorial Reviews

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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From Booklist

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
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.; 1st edition (July 6, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0805070753
  • ISBN-13: 978-0805070750
  • Product Dimensions: 5.9 x 1.2 x 10.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (38 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,147,784 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

21 of 22 people found the following review helpful By John F. Konig on August 29, 2004
Format: Hardcover
It is an incredibly well and

thoroughly researched piece of literature. What impressed me most was

how well you expanded the scope of the book way beyond just the story of

the Pullman Porters and beautifully told the story of what might be

called the second emancipation of the African Americans. You showed

clearly how the struggle of the Pullman Porters was really the precursor

of the broader struggle of all African Americans to attain their just

place in the American society and what an important and vital role the

Pullman Porters played in that struggle.
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15 of 15 people found the following review helpful By John T. Kretchmer on September 23, 2004
Format: Hardcover
Larry Tye has done a huge service in writing about an important aspect of American society with "Rising from the Rails." His well-researched and well-written account of the role of the Pullman porter as a social force shows the importance of this nearly forgotten group of workers who almost single-handedly created the black middle class out of poverty-stricken ex-slaves. Tye expertly traces the nearly one hundred-year history of men and women who not only brought home the necessity of education and experience, but also helped to organize and fund the civil rights movement. The porters' story is one of courage and fortitude in the face of dibilitating racism, and Tye's breadth of knowledge on a hitherto ignored subject is engaging.
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18 of 20 people found the following review helpful By WILLIAM H FULLER on February 15, 2008
Format: Paperback
Larry Tye is a white guy writing about a specific aspect of the "black experience." Now, some white guys can pull this off very well indeed. For example, William A. Owens' historical novel WALKING ON BORROWED LAND gives the reader a very compelling and quite convincing view of being a black professional in Jim Crow Oklahoma. In Tye's case, however, I keep feeling that he's the outsider looking in, and I keep wondering if his conclusions are entirely accurate. Perhaps the fact that he wrote about black American sleeping car porters while sitting in a study on Lake Como overlooking the Swiss and Italian Alps has something to do with his remaining just a little bit divorced from his subject.

I believe the greatest strength of RISING FROM THE RAILS is its informative description of the formation of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first black labor union; its eventual success in winning recognition from the historically racist Pullman Company; and the critical involvement of the Brotherhood's leaders in kick-starting the civil rights movement of the 1960s. In fact, that last strength may be the most significant of all. I have little doubt that much, or even most, of white America can identify Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. However, I am less certain that it can also identify Asa Philip Randolph or Edgar D. Nixon or can explain the connection between the Brotherhood and the Montgomery bus boycott. I also doubt that very many non-historians even know that Todd Lincoln, son of "the great emancipator" president, followed George Mortimer Pullman as president of the powerful railroad sleeping car company and perpetuated the extremely discriminatory, racist policies of that business.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Joe McMahon on November 2, 2004
Format: Hardcover
Central to this excellent analytical history are the porters themselves. This book is not a biography of A. Philip Randolph or George Pullman. Rather, the vigor of this narrative arises from the men who were sleeping car porters, and most of their testimony comes with their real names and families. The porters worked hard at their extraordinary jobs, and they left a strong legacy in their descendents. I am a railfan, and I learned a lot of detailed history from this book. However, I also received a sense of the accomplishments of these men of the past 140 years. Author Larry Tye, it seems to me, has done an excellent job of transmitting an understanding of the porters' trials, hopes, and victories. I am most grateful to these American workers, and I am most grateful to the author for his clear presentation.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Robert L. Hansen on October 6, 2004
Format: Hardcover
Larry Tye did an exemplary job of research and interviewing long before he attempted to tell the story of the Pullman porter's place in history, unionization and civil rights. Such detail would be expected of working journalists...unfortunately it is a rarity. Pullman porters were a group of gentlemen one step removed from slavery when Pullman capitalized on their subservient skills...which they performed to perfection. Only those of us in our senior years can remember when porters greeted you and made you comfortable in peacetime and wartime. Larry has superbly described the porter's talents, dreams, successes and failures. Their struggle set an example for and yielded a notable group of future black leaders. That contribution should never be forgotten.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Rob Hardy HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on July 17, 2004
Format: Hardcover
You can't see train porters anymore, except in the movies. Everyone knew the role of the ubiquitous porter, a role with duties, uniform, and demeanor. In the movies, actors played porters as porters had played their occupational roles, busy and even servile, humorous and fawning, wise to the needs and foolishness of their passengers and ignorant as members of their race were held to be. The paradoxes of the porters get a wonderful historical evaluation in _Rising from the Rails: Pullman Porters and the Making of the Black Middle Class_ (Henry Holt) by Larry Tye. A history of the porters was overdue, but Tye is squeaking this one in. There were generations of porters, but the last of them is slipping away, and some of them he interviewed for the book did not live to see it printed. Porters, for all their servility and for all the neglect that passengers often gave them, made an impression, and Tye makes the wonderful case of another paradox. The porter, whose attitude might be classed now as "Uncle Tom-ism", was a necessary element to bring about the Civil Rights movement.
The porters were, from beginning to end, creatures of the Pullman Rail Car Company. George Pullman brought out the first one in 1865, and by 1867, he was looking for a reliable way to staff the cars; Pullman needed one single worker who would be hotelier, waiter, chambermaid, butler, and information desk. There was a newly invented pool of workers to draw from, the former slaves from the South. Many had worked in plantation houses and were familiar with duties requiring close proximity to wealthy white folk. There was poor pay and atrocious hours, but many porters appreciated the opportunity to escape the south and trade overalls for bow ties and starched pants.
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