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Rising from the Rails: Pullman Porters and the Making of the Black Middle Class Paperback – May 12, 2005
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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.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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 --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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For older African American readers the book is a trip down memory lane, allowing them to recall stories of fathers, realitives and family friends who were Pullman porters. For younger African Americans its a great lesson in history - and in a sense far more relevant than stories of how slaves got by. For White Americans its a look at how their grandparents and great grandparents looked at African Americans.
Included in the story of the Pullman porters is the story of A. Phillip Randolph and his sometimes lost story and his contributions to the Civil Rights Movement.
One of the important things that I came away from this book with was the legacy that that these men - and few women- passed on to their children and the number of significant African Americans who hold significant places in American life because of the hard work and savings of a Pullman Porter who took degredation so that their children could go to college.
This book should be required reading in every African American History class! It's readable and comprehensive.
On page nine there is one small error. Tye refers to a "lanky lawyer with whiskers from Springfield named Abraham Lincoln" who road the rails. Lincoln did not acquire his beard until after his election in 1860.
This gave the ex-slaves and subsequent African American workers a degree of freedom of movement and economic opportunity heretofore unknown in this community. Though these jobs were some of the best available, they were at best a mixed blessing. The jobs were highly regimented with a strict, codified rule book covering nearly every eventuality. The smallest infraction could result in suspension and termination. This made for some tense times for the porters. The conditions though not as difficult as some agricultural pursuit were very challenging---long trips, long hours, minimal facilities for sleeping, dressing, etc.
Out of the need to establish more reasonable and equitable pay and working conditions, the porters under the leadership of A. Philip Randolph established the first black trade union in the United States. Through a number of strategies, the porters won recognition of their union with the Pullman Company and did improve the lot of their workers. The union also exerted national influence on a number of issues which served to expand opportunity for African Americans--desegregation of wartime industry.
A. Philip Randolph was the pioneer that proposed a March on Washington in the forties. Though the march never took place, the mere threat of the march got results. He subsequently served as the prime organizer of the actual March on Washington in 1968.
Many of the tactics which would be applied during the 1950s-1960s Civil Rights struggles were developed and tried by the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. These porters used their economic opportunities to strengthen their families and provide an avenue for many of their children to enter the middle class.
This is a wonderful story of the unique and important chapter in American and African American labor history. Tye tells the larger labor history as well as the significant personal stories of the porters which puts a human face on these struggles for equality.