Home > ALL POSTS > Cruising the Past: The Oakland Tribune tells the story of Pullman Porters. These gracious and hard working men paved the way for the African-American middle class and provided first class professional service aboard the largest hotel system ever created on wheels.

Cruising the Past: The Oakland Tribune tells the story of Pullman Porters. These gracious and hard working men paved the way for the African-American middle class and provided first class professional service aboard the largest hotel system ever created on wheels.

pullmandh.gifThe Oakland Tribune did a great story on a recent Bay Area event honoring former Pullman Porters.  Be sure to visit the Oakland Tribune by clicking here.

The Pullman Company provided first class overnight sleeping car service throughout the United States until 1968.   Amtrak has never duplicated the first class service which was provided by the Pullman Porter, this army of professionals who, along with the Pullman Conductors, were the face of the Pullman Company. pod_hurst.gif Along with all the staff aboard the trains — engineers, fireman, conductors, stewards, waiters, chefs, cooks, maids, barbers, secretaries — the Pullman Porters worked to create a hotel on wheels with service equal to the finest resorts in the world.  We will never see this type of true gracious and first class service again on any jet or Amtrak train.


A Pullman porter, during the late 1950s, waiting for first class passengers to board his “rolling hotel” in Memphis, Tenn. — during the 1920s the Pullman Company served over a 100,000 passengers aboard thousands of sleeping cars every night.  


Retired train porters (l-r) Lee Gibson, 98, Thomas H. Gray, 71, Samuel Coleman, 80, James Smith, 83, and Troy Walker, 90, were honored at the Amtrak station in Oakland, Calif. Tuesday morning Feb. 10, 2009 in aceremony celebrating the work of the Pullman Porters. Pullman Porters were African American men who worked the sleeping cars and dining cars in rail’s heyday. The work was hard and they were segregated from white workers for many years. The country’s first black labor union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, was formed by the porters who worked those sleeping and dining cars. (Karl Mondon/ Oakland Tribune)


Retired Pullman Porter Troy Walker, 90, relaxes aboard the Coast Starlight Monday Feb. 9, 2009 enroute to Oakland, California. He was among five men honored at the Oakland Amtrak station Tuesday morning, Feb. 10, 2009 in a ceremony celebrating the work of the Pullman Porters. Pullman Porters were African American men who worked the sleeping cars and dining cars in rail’s heyday. The work was hard and they were segregated from white workers for many years. The country’s first black labor union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, was formed by the porters who worked those sleeping and dining cars. (Karl Mondon/ Oakland Tribune) 

Porters ride in fitting tribute at Oakland event…

By Cecily Burt
Courtesy of the Oakland Tribune – Feb. 11, 2009Troy Walker relaxed on Monday in a plush, rose-colored club chair on Amtrak’s Coast Starlight and watched the scenery whiz by the window. It was 7:30 a.m., but Walker, 90, a habitual early riser, already was nattily attired and had enjoyed a hearty breakfast in the dining car.


Dining Car aboard the California Zephyr in the early 1960s…

As the train whistle blew and San Francisco Bay came into view, Walker recalled the bygone days when he was the one serving passengers in the dining cars of the Railway Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway Railway, not the other way around.


Pullman Porters came in contact with many celebrities and tycoons.  Actress Rosalind Russell is seen in a New York Central publicity photo aboard the 20th Century Limited with a Pullman Porter standing next to the adjoining car on the Grand Central Station platform. 

“I only made $80 a month, but I made good tips,” said Walker, one of thousands of African-American waiters, cooks and porters on whom railroad travel and service depended
for nearly 100 years. “Meeting different people, famous people like Elizabeth Taylor and Orson Welles; most of the movie actors and actresses road the train at that particular time. We had a first-class train and first-class food.”

Great video on the event including history of the Pullman Company and the porters…

Dedicated employees such as Walker and Thomas Henry Gray, 71, fellow travelers on the Coast Starlight from Seattle, spent decades cooking, serving or changing the linens for passengers riding fancy railroad sleeping and dining cars. The porters and waiters were admired and looked up to in their communities, but on the job they were segregated from white employees.


On the Western Pacific’s California Zephyr – Ready to begin her return trip from Oakland to Chicago, Zephyrette Nancy Gephart and Sleeping Car Porter Henry F. Wellington (Pullman had gone out of business in 1968 but porters then worked for the individual railroads prior to Amtrak) await California Zephry passengers. Ms. Gephart’s uniform is the style used in 1969.  The Zephyrettes were similar to airline stewardesses.  They had to be nurses and their stories equal Pullman Porters with tales of dealing with passengers.  They didn’t confront racial issues but obviously dealt with sexual harassment.

Before a union was established, they routinely were made to work around the clock without compensation — cleaning sleeping berths, hining shoes, polishing silver. All too often they endured horrible racism from passengers and bosses until anti-segregation laws were passed.


The Southern Pacific’s CASCADE seen in the 1950s operated between San Francisco and Portland with through Pullman cars to Seattle.

To honor their loyalty and years of service, Amtrak invited Walker and four other men who worked as porters or waiters during rail’s heyday to travel — by rail — to Oakland for a special ceremony Tuesday at the C.L. Dellums Amtrak station at Jack London Square. Amtrak already had held similar events in Washington, D.C., and Chicago last year.

cosfdrumhead.gif“Without these men, the trains are just cold steel,” said Brian Rosenwald, Amtrak’s chief of product management. “They gave the trains soul. They are my heroes, my role models, and I’m actually inspired by their example and courage.”

Starting in 1869, just a few years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, George Pullman offered jobs to black men to serve as porters on his luxurious Pullman sleeping cars. Although the work was long and grueling, especially during trips that could last as long as nine days, jobs as porters or waiters provided stable employment and allowed the men to support their families, have their own homes and send their children to school. In fact, all of the honorees went on to have other careers as businessmen, engineers or in other fields.


Big tips and contact with influential white passengers for Pullman porters were available on Santa Fe’s All-Pullman Super Chief operating between Los Angeles and Chicago.  It was called the “train of the stars”!  Many porters made lifelong contacts aboard this train along with other premier trains (the Broadway Limited, Panama Limited, North Coast Limited, Capital Limited) with passengers who helped the porter’s children enter major universities. 

In 1925 the Pullman porters formed the country’s first black labor union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. It took 12 more years of struggle before the union would win its first contract with the company. A. Philip Randolph was the founder and representative, and the union had chapters in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and Oakland. C.L. Dellums, uncle to Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums, was the West Coast representative for the union, and the Amtrak station is named in his honor.


Observation Lounge/Sleeper aboard the California Zephyr…  The Pullman Porter is seen entering the observation lounge area while the Zephyrette speaking with passengers.

The men and their families were treated like royalty during their visit, and all were quite pleased by the fuss. Gray brought his 92-year-old mother to the ceremony. Gray worked for the Santa Fe Railroad, while his father worked for the Pullman Co. As their trains passed during the night, Gray would shine a flashlight, and his father would wave the lantern back at him.

A dining car waiter and passengers aboard Western Pacific’s California Zephyr.  The famous train competed with Southern Pacific between San Francisco and Chicago.  

James Smith, 83, joined Southern Pacific on the West Coast when he was 18, earning 36 cents an hour as a dishwasher before working his way up to fourth cook, third cook, and finally, a dining car waiter.

cascade.gif“I had to work 100 hours to make $36, but we survived,” he told the rapt crowd at Tuesday’s ceremony.

He worked the luxurious Lark Pullman car from San Francisco to Los Angeles, carrying 1,000 passengers, including many movie stars and businessmen, every day each way.3601.jpg The dining car served 144 people at one time. Smith also worked the Sunset route from Los Angeles to New Orleans and the Golden State from Los Angeles to Chicago. Although the porters’ union was powerful, Smith said he did not envy them because they did not earn tips and he did.  muadvertse10.jpgHowever, it was hard work.

“When I was working the transcontinental to New Orleans, we’d work 16 hours a day, from 5:30 in the morning until 9:30 at night,” Smith said. “If you had a load on, you worked as long as they came in the diner. It was just one of those things.”


Pullman Advertisement from the late 1940s… 

Before they had rail cars with dormitories, the sleeping arrangements were makeshift.

“In some of the older diners, you slept right in the dining car. You’d move the tables and chairs, peel back the rug and pull up the floorboards to get the mattresses and blankets stored there. There was a wire that ran from one end of the diner to the next and we’d put curtains up, and that would be how we slept.”


Private Pullman Accommodations… 

Smith said that despite the segregation, he did not encounter much racism. He was working when Jack Benny’s entire Hollywood entourage traveled to Houston to open the Shamrock Hotel, and he worked the 10-day trip that boxer Jack Dempsey took to Mardi Gras.

“Bozo the Clown was on board,” Smith remembered. “The stories, especially in the bar car, it was a lot of fun. Making money and serving the people, it wasn’t all drudgery.”


Samuel Coleman, 80, was still in school when he hired on with the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad as a cook, a position that really turned out to be a dishwasher.

 “On my first trip I washed so many dishes from Chicago to Denver. I never saw so many dishes in my life,” he said. “On the way back to Chicago, I promised myself that I was quittin,’ but the old-timers convinced me to stay on, that it would get better. I stayed for 25 years.”

After 10 months, Coleman was promoted to a waiter position, but the living conditions for African-American workers were pretty much the same — namely, lousy.


Bar Car with Bartender serving passengers.

During layovers in Oakland they stayed in a one-story shed off Seventh Street in the west side of town, surrounded at night by hobos and populated by rats and cockroaches. After a lot of complaints, the group was moved to the California Hotel on San Pablo Avenue. In other small towns such as Billings, Mont., and Casper, Wyo., there were no hotels for them.


The City Of San Francisco – the fastest thing on wheels between San Francisco and Chicago. 

“We had to go to the (train) station at night, after it was closed, to use the facilities in the station,” Coleman said.   “It was a small town, no shower and only one washroom and one face bowl, 10 to 12 men lined up trying to keep to themselves as clean as they could. It was very difficult.”

360.jpgThe porters were ambassadors for the railroad and role models in the black community, said Lyn Hughes, founder of the A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum. They were always impeccably dressed in their uniforms, unfailingly courteous and professional to the passengers, even when the passengers called the men “George,” instead of their real names, or worse, she said.

“They were ordinary men who did an extraordinary thing,” Hughes said. “No one told them they had to be the best, or do their best — it was self-pride.”

169129621-l.jpgColeman, who helped the waiters gain recognition under the powerful Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters union, said they did what they had to do.

“There was racial prejudice, but we worked through it to take care of our families,” he said. “We were like the ambassadors for the company. “… We had to stand tall and walk tall in order to achieve the things we wanted in our lives.”

pullman-porters112.jpgLee Gibson, at 98 the oldest honoree in the group and the only sleeping car porter, was 26 when one of the deacons at his church asked if he wanted to work on the railroad. He jumped at the chance, although he earned so little at the time, he cannot even remember what it was. california_zephyr.jpgThere were tough times, he said, but he enjoyed it. And he still is a railroad man at heart, sporting a railroad spike tie tack that commemorated the 100-year anniversary of the meeting of the eastern and western rail lines at Promontory, Utah.

larkdh.gif“I’ve been on a high for the last two months, really, ever since I first heard about the (event),” he said. “It was nice. I got the service I used to give.”


African-American Pullman porters honored as heroes…

By EVELYN NIEVES Associated Press Writer

OAKLAND, Calif.—During the long gone days when the world traveled by train, being a Pullman porter was one of the best jobs an African-American man could have, and one of the worst.The hours were grueling—16 hours a day, seven days a week. The pay was poor. The working conditions were appalling. Pullman porters, named for the sleeping-car trains invented by Chicago industrialist George Pullman, cleaned toilets, made beds and answered the beck and call of passengers who sometimes called them “boy”—and worse.

On the other hand, Pullman porters got to see the country, meet famous people and, thanks to tips, support their families.


A barman and waiter in a lounge car – 1950s.

They also made history.

On Tuesday, Amtrak honored the little-known legacy of the Pullman porters, who formed the first black labor union in the country in 1925.

Five early members of The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, ranging in age from 71 to 98, took the train from their homes on the West Coast to meet at the Oakland Amtrak station. They bashfully accepted awards, thanked their proud families and remembered the old days as mostly good.


Pullman Company Advertisement – 1950s.

Lee Gibson, 98, spoke of nothing but the fondest times. “It was a wonderful life,” said the Los Angeles resident.

Similar gatherings were held in Chicago and Washington last year.

The first Pullman porters, hired after the Civil War, were former slaves. Their ranks swelled until they reached 20,000 strong in the early part of the 20th Century, making them the largest group of employed African-American men in the country. But the ranks are dwindling each year.


Pullman Service – a Menu from a Pullman lounge – drinks and light meals were served by the Pullman Company.  This was in addition to the dining car services offered by the railroad. 

The oldest living porter is 107, the youngest 70, said Lyn Hughes, founder of the A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum in Chicago that’s named for the New York pamphleteer and civil rights leader who organized the union.”They are a very interesting piece of history that has been mostly forgotten,” Hughes said. “And my hope is that what we’re doing introduces this history to other generations and makes them understand the significance of what these men did.”


From the Saturday Evening Post.  The service aboard the trains — waiters, Pullman Porters, Conductors, Stewards, cooks, chefs, maids — were a national institution.  They were all featured in films and made famous.

Hughes created a National Historic Registry of Pullman Porters in 2000 and was able to track down 7,000 of them. “They all say the same thing,” she said. “‘We didn’t think we were doing anything special.'”

Instead of recalling historic triumphs, the nattily dressed gentlemen honored in Oakland liked remembering the fun they had.


Pullman Porters with Pullman Conductor – Advertisement…

James Smith started working on the train in 1943. “I’m one of the babies here,” he said, “I’m only 83.” The retired Simi Valley engineer recalled serving members of the Negro Leagues, heavyweight boxing champion Jack Dempsey and Hollywood starlets.


The Pullman Porter is making up a lower berth.

Thomas Henry Gray, at 71 the real baby of the group, remembered working summers on the train as a college student before becoming an engineer for Boeing Co. in Seattle. He would wave to his father, also a Pullman porter, and grandfather, a brakeman, as their trains passed one another across the Northwest and Southwest.


The extra fare All-Pullman 20th CENTURY LIMITED was considered the finest train in the world.  It ran every night between New York and Chicago. 

Troy Walker, 90, of Seattle remembered serving some of the finest meals on some of the finest trains in the world during his 30 years on the Pullmans.

“They stopped using ‘porter’ when Amtrak took over the trains in 1971,” he said. “The white people they hired didn’t want to be called ‘porter’ and they didn’t want to wear the uniform.”

The Pullman porter’s uniform—starched white jacket, black tie and visored cap—was put out to pasture. But old habits died hard for Gibson.

Loratious Presley III said his uncle still wears suits everywhere, all the time, “even to watch baseball games on TV.” 



In the late 1920s… Seven sections of the Santa Fe “California Limited” are seen ready to leave from Los Angeles for Chicago.   Pullman porters are seen standing next to the cars. 

sunsetlimitedintops.jpgThe Southern Pacific’s SUNSET LIMITED – Deluxe streamliner with Pullman service between Los Angeles and New Orleans – outside Palm Springs, California.  

californialimited05.jpgAboard a dining car… waiters standing at attention with the steward at the end of the car.  It was not until the late 1960s, African Americans were employed as dining car stewards.

californialimited0115.jpgA Pullman lounge with the porter seen behind the buffet bar area.   Filipinos were hired in the 1920s by the Pullman Company to break the unions.  They stayed, joined the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and were mainly used in Observation combined sleeping cars and lounge combined Pullmans.

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