Benjamin Gaines, 93, worked as a Pullman porter from 1945 to 1954. “The porters, believe it or not, we had a celebrity status,” he said in an interview with the Chicago Tribune.
(Cover Photo: CW: Janet Leigh, star of Hitchcock’s PSYCHO boarding the Super Chief in fashion layout; Porter during the 1960s looking out at the Kansas prairie: Pullman Porter’s cap.)
SERVICE WITH A SMILE
In his nine years as a Pullman porter, Benjamin Gaines waited on high-society types as they traveled across the country aboard luxury first-class Pullman sleepers.
- Gaines washed dishes, mixed drinks, served aged cheese and sardines, shined shoes, changed bedsheets and also found time to regale passengers with stories on routes from Seattle to Miami.
- “I always catered to the kids,” Gaines said. “They’d come back to the club car. I would point out scenery to them as we traveled out west and their parents were appreciative of the fact I had knowledge about where we were going to.”
- Gaines, now 93, is a member of a dwindling fraternity of Pullman porters who have lived to see their legacy immortalized, first with the creation of the A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum and then when President Barack Obama proclaimed the South Side Pullman district of Chicago as the nation’s 406th national park.
- The Pullman Palace Car Co., founded by George Pullman, leased a variety of cars to railroads and directly employed the attendants, including porters, many of whom were recently freed, slaves.
For much of the early 20th century, the company was the largest employer of African-Americans, with porters contributing to the significant growth of the black middle class.
PULLMAN PORTER’S UNION
Their union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, secured the first significant labor agreement between a union led by African-Americans and a corporation.
- “The porters, believe it or not, we had a celebrity status. We were upper class because it was a prestigious job. A lot of porters bought homes from working on the railroad. Many of the brownstones on the South Side of Chicago, porters bought them with tips and money they made from working extra runs,” Gaines confided in his Chicago Tribune interview.
Born in a Kentucky town “that wasn’t as big as Chicago’s Soldier Field” and raised in Evansville, Ind., Gaines relished the opportunity to travel all over the country.
He recalled a seemingly vertical ascent on a route to Denver and snaking through the nearly 6-mile Moffat Tunnel that cuts across the Continental Divide in the Rocky Mountains en route to Salt Lake City onboard the famed streamlined California Zeypher. Porters had to bid for routes, with the most coveted destinations going to those with seniority.
- Tourists heading south tipped well, and the porters got some time in sunny Florida. When more seasoned porters asked about how passengers tipped, Gaines lowballed in an effort to keep the route.
- But veteran porters eventually caught on, and he got bumped, Gaines said. Passengers rode in high style.
- On club cars, porters mixed a gin and tonic for 90 cents. On the end of trains was generally a bullet-shaped observation car that provided passengers with panoramic views of the countryside. And, of course, the renowned sleeping cars, where passengers had the choice of upper and lower berths, sections, roomettes, bedrooms, compartments, drawing rooms and on a couple of trains a master bedroom with private bathrooms.
Porters had much more modest accommodations, with most having to settle for about three hours of sleep in dining or club cars after they’d closed, Gaines said.
“We broke the tables down and slept on cots,” Gaines said. “We got up the next morning, picked up and everything looked like the day before.” Gaines fondly remembers sharing the company of celebrities like “The Invisible Man” actor Claude Rains, who enjoyed a nightly glass of whiskey on train rides to his farm in rural Pennsylvania Gaines also met actor Victor Mature, who regularly traveled on routes to his home in Louisville and had once asked Gaines for a favor. “He asked me one evening, ‘Can I get off from your car when we arrive in the terminal?'” Gaines recalled. “He said, ‘The reason being, I know the press is going to be there, and I’ll be two hours trying to get away from them. If I can get off on your car, I can duck him.’ And that’s what he did.”
- And while most of Gaines’ encounters with passengers were pleasant, he and other porters also endured racial prejudice during segregation. Some passengers disparagingly referred to all porters as “George.” “My answer was, ‘My name is Benjamin Franklin Gaines. There’s no George anywhere,’ ” Gaines said. “I think it caught them by surprise because there would be no follow-up insult behind that”
- At its peak, the Pullman Company was the largest single employer of black men in the United States — employing 20,000.
- The Pullman porters laid the groundwork for the civil rights movement by forming the first black labor union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, under the leadership of A. Philip Randolph in the 1920s. The union gave leadership, money, and venues to the civil rights movement, he said.
It was a Pullman porter who recruited a young minister who had just come from Atlanta to join the Montgomery bus boycott. E. D. Nixon, who had worked as a Pullman porter, was the one who bailed Rosa Parks out of jail after she refused to move on the bus, and who selected her as the sympathetic figure to build the boycott around. (He had previously rejected a few other individuals who had been similarly arrested.)
If Martin Luther King was the father of the civil rights movement, then A. Philip Randolph was the grandfather of the civil rights movement.
PULLMAN PORTERS AND THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT
Lee Wesley Gibson was believed to be one of the oldest living Pullman Porters. He was 106 when he died in his Los Angeles home in 2016. He speaks here about voting in the 2016 election.
- Gibson began work as a coach attendant with Union Pacific Railroad at the height of the Great Depression.
- He was later promoted to Pullman porter and traveled the country for 38 years as one of the uniformed railway men who served first-class passengers in Pullman Company sleeping cars.
- “I loved my work, traveling the country, meeting people and my work. I’m a happy man and the Pullman Company helped raise my children and have a good life,” Gibson said in a newspaper interview.
- When Pullman ended operations in 1968, the Pullman porters were transferred to Union Pacific until Amtrak took over in 1971. Gibson retired as a sleeping car porter in 1974, but he continued working in tax preparation and being actively involved in his community.
PULLMAN PORTERS BACKBONE OF THE BLACK MIDDLE CLASS
- The Pullman porters also played an essential role in the great black migration, since they were the only blacks who regularly moved between the South and the North. By carrying copies of black newspapers like The Chicago Defender and The Pittsburgh Courier, they offered Southern blacks in small towns a glimpse of what life was like in the big cities. The porters were also played a critical role in gaining an economic foothold for their descendants. They are — to a disproportionate extent — the father, the grandfathers, the uncles of the black professional class today.
A number of the most prominent black figures have Pullman porters in their lineage, he said: William E. Kennard, a former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, who had a Pullman porter grandfather; Thurgood Marshall, the Supreme Court justice who had a Pullman porter father; and former Mayor Willie Brown of San Francisco, who also had a father who worked as a porter.
- While they had monthly wages, their earnings were supplemented mainly by tips, and at times they threatened to strike if tips did not improve. An 1890 article in The New York Times debated the ethics of tipping porters: “Tipping is objected to by austere and frugal American moralists upon the ground that it undermines the manhood and self-respect of the tippee. But this proposition loses all its force when the tippee is of African descent.”
Using those meager wages, Pullman porters made substantial contributions to their home communities. For example, in the late 1800s, a Pullman porter built and supported a school that educated hundreds of black children in Covington, Ga.
- The Pullman porters were the inspiration of George Pullman, which is why the Pullman porters were often referred to as George, regardless of their real names. He had decided that he was looking for the perfect servant to signify the luxury train experience. Who better to hire than ex-slaves? They were brilliantly attentive. They were incredibly inexpensive to hire. Not only were they servants, but they also provided entertainment, as they were organized into choruses, orchestras or bands.
- The Pullman Porter story.
The porters mostly settled in cities that were significant rail stops — Chicago, Boston, Washington, New York, Oakland, Los Angeles, San Francisco — but they can be found anywhere the railroads ran.
Even today, observers are struck by how elegant the elderly men are who are still living. They will look at you and have a great conversation because back then when working for Pullman that’s what they had to do.
Comments from the articles in the NY Times and Chicago Tribune about Pullman Porters.
My family has always had deep connections to railroad travel. My paternal grandfather was a steam engineer and died in a terrible boiler explosion on his engine. I traveled with my family on many long distance trips and delighted in the hospitality provided by the elegant Pullman porters. I found it fascinating to put one’s shoes out in the evening and find them sparkling with polish in the morning! Thank you Pullman porters for many beautiful memories.
My first overnight train trip alone was taken at the age of nine. My grandfather tipped the porter handsomely to look out for me and this he did. I also ate in the dining car, which had white tablecloths, silver, and fresh flowers on every table and African American waiters who were as gentlemanly as the porters. I have loved traveling alone ever since.
Very seldom do you encounter the beautiful manners these gentlemen had in today’s travel?
Jeffrey Sundwal …
In 1967, my uncle and I took the California Zephyr to California. We had a bedroom/compartment on the train. Our porter was Mr. C.E. Duke. He was just a wonderful gentleman who took time with the passengers and made sure that all were satisfied. I was ten years old and I would seek out Mr. Duke and chat with him when he was not busy. He would point out things of interest along the route. I have a very fond memory of this wonderful man.
On our way back, we took the Super Chief from LA to Chicago. All of the porters and waiters were charming and helpful. This was my first close interaction with Black people and it changed my view of Blacks for the rest of my life. The Pullman employees were the best!
Jean Crossman …
Enjoyed the story so much. My father was a conductor on the Missouri-Pacific lines for 25 years and finally retired in 1953. I remember a trip my family took when I was 14. We traveled from Little Rock, AR to Los Angeles, CA. It was really a treat to sleep on the train and the porters were so nice to me and my sister. That was quite an experience for us and I remember being so excited about the Pullman cars. Thanks for reviving some wonderful memories.
When I was young, my mother used to take my sister and me on the night train from Toronto to Chicago to visit our grandmother who lived there. It was a Canadian National Train, “The International” with several cars of sleeping cars, all with evocative names. Sleeping cars was an easy way for Mom to travel with two kids; we went to sleep in Toronto’s Union Station and then woke up in Indiana for breakfast and arrival at Dearborn Station. Mom took two bedrooms that connected and she had one compartment; my sister and I competed for who got the upper berth in the other compartment; we both looked out the windows at the towns and quiet crossings!! Later, I had my own roomette and my mother and sister shared a compartment, letting me read my Tom Swift and Hardy Boys books while looking out at the winter nights (we always seemed to go in January and February to Chicago), and getting my shoes shined in the little box up high.
As a child, I realized that the Pullman Porters and the Dining Car staff (who always made better oatmeal than my Mom) and the “Sleeping Car Conductors” (perhaps a Canadian term) were “Negroes”, at a time when Toronto had a very small black population. I was taught by my Mom that they did their job with pride and were good at it. Mom always spoke courteously to them, and that has passed over to both me and my sister. When people were rude to the Porters or the Red Caps she told us “treat others as you would like to be treated”. We also always received good service from the Red Caps (the station porters – another Canadian term?), especially as we had gifts for my Chicago relatives on the outbound leg and shopping from Marshall Fields on the return trip! I want to thank the Porters and Dining Car and other passenger train staff who will be honored in Philadelphia for all the good and wonderful service they and their colleagues gave to me and my parents and my sister and so many other people. It was a wonderful way to travel and I always enjoyed train trips, especially the night trains. I also want to thank their Canadian colleagues who provided similar service on the routes of Canadian National and Canadian Pacific Railways. In a way, the night train to Chicago (and back again a week later) was a “mini-cruise” for kids living in suburban Toronto with their Grandmother in Chicago!
M. D. White…
My first job at the age of 12 (some 45 years ago) was as a kitchen helper and busboy at the local country club. Several of the black waiters that I worked with had been Pullman porters in their earlier days. Consummate gentlemen all, they were genuine professionals who took tremendous pride in their work. I can recall several of them telling me that they’d put their children through college on the tips they earned while working on the B&O, the Louisville & Nashville, the Gulf, Mobile & Ohio, and the New York Central, among others. They taught me a lot about work ethics. They were good men and it was a privilege to have worked with them.
I remember that my Dad, Thomas R. McMillen, who was a prominent lawyer in Chicago at the time, had a special respect for the porters. We used to travel by train around Illinois to visit family, and often I traveled alone. He always made a point to meet the porters and other staff on the trains and to be sure I knew their names and that I treated them respectfully. We lived in a white suburb, so I had little contact with blacks as a youngster and it was an important lesson for me.
In the 1940s my dad occasionally went by train to ministerial conferences. I would notice how all the “Redcaps” helping with the luggage carts would tip their caps when addressing the mostly white clientele. When I took my first train ride alone at age seven, from Buffalo to Montreal, the first thing Dad did upon arrival at the station was tip his hat to the gentleman who picked up my small bag and call him sir. No big deal perhaps but the memory has stuck with me all these years. The porter then turned us over to the conductor who was to watch over me during the trip, with a bag of Canadian jelly beans to keep me company. (And Charles, I too read my dad’s copies of Tom Swift and the Hardy Boys – more exciting than playing with dolls!)
Don’t forget Malcolm X was a Pullman porter for a couple of years (as per his autobiography). For 98% of “negro” Americans back then, it was as good a job as they were allowed to aspire to. Good money and GREAT travel benefits. And besides meeting people from around the country, learning how to talk and act with different kinds of people from all walks of life, how do you think he was able to afford to travel from Boston to New York to Washington to Chicago when he was organizing for civil rights and black-American liberty? With his lifetime rail pass — absolutely.