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The Pullman Porter Hardcover – February 1, 2014
This attractive, large-format picture book shines a light on a little-known part of America’s past: the century-long history of the Pullman porter. After the Civil War, a select group of former slaves was hired to assist passengers and keep things running smoothly on George Pullman’s new sleeper cars. Though the work was hard and passengers’ attitudes could be demeaning, the porters traveled widely, carried themselves with dignity, and earned respect. Their union, formed in the 1930s, would later play a part in the civil rights movement. Offering a good bit of information in a relatively short text, Oelschlager discusses the lives and work of Pullman porters, along with comments on the history and shifting social context of their era. While somewhat uneven, the best of Blanc’s acrylic paintings are very good indeed: strong, distinctive scenes portray individual porters at work, with their families, and even asleep. A heartfelt tribute to Pullman porters, this book will fill a gap in many library collections. Grades 2-5. --Carolyn Phelan --This text refers to the Paperback edition.
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The books text traces the story of Pullman Porters from beginning to end, sharing interesting facts and slipping in quotes from other sources. Beautiful mixed-media paintings illustrate the train cars, porter's uniforms, and other details. Songs mentioned in the book and other texts that are referred to are listed at the end for further investigation. This would be a wonderful addition to school library collections and very helpful for 19th and 20th century history lessons. I also found a short video about the Pullman Porters.
I originally read an e-book version provided through NetGalley, but then purchased a print version for my school library collection.
The Pullman Company was a major employer of African Americans in the early part of the twentieth century and appeared attractive in terms of remuneration and lifestyle compared with most of the alternatives. In fact, the porters relied on tips for much of their income and were thus obliged to be obsequious to condescending white passengers who would routinely refer to them as ‘George’ after the Pullman Company’s founder.
A host of petty regulations further demeaned them and depressed their living conditions. Approximately ten per cent of their time, for example, was spent in unpaid setting-up and cleaning-up duties at the beginning and end of each train journey. Up to half of their wages could be consumed by the cost of paying for their own food, lodging and uniforms, whilst they had to reimburse the company if one of their passengers stole a towel or water pitcher. To make matters even worse there was no prospect of promotion, as the position of conductor, the next rung up the ladder, was exclusively reserved for whites.
It should come as no surprise therefore that these conditions produced a seething discontent which in racial terms was compounded by porters observing, in the course of their travels, that a more tolerant, or at least less overtly racist, society operated in the North.
Hence the porters strove to improve their conditions by unionizing, and after years of struggle the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and Maids, under A. Philip Randolph, was finally recognized by the Pullman Company in 1935 and in 1937 signed its first collective bargaining agreement with the company. This was a landmark in trade union, and specifically African American trade union, rights in the United States. Moreover, many current or former Pullman porters, most notably E. D. Nixon and Malcolm X, played an important role in advancing African American civil rights more generally.
In Vanita Oelschlager’s children’s book ‘The Pullman Porter’ this story is told with grace, economy and beautiful illustrations, by Mike Blanc. It mistakenly states that Martin Luther King began his 1963 March on Washington speech with the words “I have a dream, that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” In fact, these words appear closer to the end than to the beginning of the speech. The book is also incorrect in describing Thurgood Marshall as having been a Pullman porter, although he was briefly employed as a dining car waiter by the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad.
These errors do not, however, detract too seriously from ‘The Pullman Porter’ being both an educational and entertaining read.
The work was often grueling and poorly paid, but it was considered a prestigious job for African Americans (many of whom, in the early days, were ex-slaves). The book is short, 44 pages, but each is beautifully illustrated and the text is accessible and well written.
I can imagine this being a useful book in a classroom setting, as a part of a unit on post Civil War America, as a background book for a unit on ethnic diversity and roles in America, or as a study unit on railroads/travel.
I remember when I was a child, traveling from Pittsburgh to Boston and Cape Cod every summer. We traveled by train, and even in the 60s and early 70s it was a wonderful adventure.
This book does not sugar-coat or play down the degrading and often dangerous work which was required of the porters. They were expected to purchase and maintain their uniforms and even to buy the shoe-polish they used.
Well researched and factual, I learned a lot about the history of the Pullman porters and the afterword even lists some of the more famous of their descendants.
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