Miles of Smiles, Years of Struggle
“Miles of Smiles, Years of Struggle”
The Untold Story of the Pullman Porters
The story of the Pullman porters is one of the most important but least-known stories in the history of African Americans.
George Pullman started the Pullman Company just after the Civil War. Pullman built the sleeping cars, called “hotels on wheels,” and hired the men who provided the first-class service. The conductors on the cars were always white men, but the personal service, which is what really made the company famous, was provided by black men. Of course, in the early days, these men were former slaves.
The porter had to do everything. He greeted passengers, carried baggage, made up the sleeping berths, tidied up the cars, served food and drinks, shined shoes, and had to be available night and day to wait on the passengers. For all this, the Pullman Company paid the porter a very small salary. He had to depend on tips from the passengers to make a living.
By the 1920s, Pullman employed more black workers than any other company in the United States. And the symbol of the elegant service that the company was selling was the humble Pullman porter.
Low Wages for Highly Qualified Men
Within their own communities, the porters were often considered to be the” best and brightest.” They were able to leave their small towns in the south and travel to the great cities of the nation, associate with famous people and hear about the latest news and styles firsthand. Although the pay was poor and the conditions difficult, the job was, in an era when any profession other than a laborer was unattainable, one that many black men aspired to.
The Pullman Company was able to exploit this situation and pay low wages to highly qualified men. The result was that men who could have been lawyers or accountants, and in some cases were lawyers or accountants, had to accept a job earning only $67.50 a month in 1925.
On top of the low pay was the lack of job security. The Pullman Company inspectors were known for suspending porters for trivial reasons. Passengers often called every porter “George,” as if he were George Pullman’s “boy.” They expected the porter to always smile for them. So the porters often called the job, ironically, “miles of smiles.”
A. Philip Randolph
In 1925, the porters began to hear about a man in the east talking about organizing the porters into a union. His name was A. Philip Randolph. Randolph was born the son of a preacher in Florida in 1891. He moved to Harlem when he was 21 and became interested in socialism. Even then, he wanted to unionize black workers. Of course, at that time, that was an unheard of idea.
A group of porters led by Ashley L. Totten came to Randolph and asked him to help them organize. Randolph agreed, noting that the Pullman porter was “made to order to carry the gospel of unionism in the colored world—his home is everywhere.”
So, on the night of August 25, 1925, in the Elk’s Lodge at 129th Street in Harlem, Randolph called a meeting of 500 porters and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters was born.
But getting the Pullman Company to recognize the Brotherhood was not so easy. Because they faced the loss of their jobs, much of the organizing by the men had to be done secretly. That’s where the work of someone like Rosina Tucker came in.
The Struggle to Organize
Rosina Tucker was the wife of a porter and is the narrator the documentary film about the history of the porters called “Miles of Smiles, Years of Struggle.” She often handed out union literature among the men and collected dues.
Mrs. Tucker describes a time when a meeting was held at a porter's home and the company called the porter in to ask about it. But he was able to show by his timesheet that he was out of town on a trip at the time...but his wife held the meeting.
Randolph directed the Brotherhood with help of Milton P. Webster in Chicago and C.L. Dellums on the west coast. Dellums (the uncle of Congressman Ron Dellums) also appears in the Miles of Smiles film and talks about how he was fired from his job as a porter because of his union activities.
Although their jobs were on the line, the men even threatened the company with a strike. Eventually, they won the support of white unions and fought for fair labor laws from the federal government.
But it was tough going because Randolph was preaching a new doctrine that was opposed even by many black leaders, including ministers and newspapermen. Randolph said that black workers should not beg white businessmen for better pay and working conditions. They should organize and demand them.
The Brotherhood Triumphs
This attitude is exemplified by a story Rosina Tucker tells in the film: “Porter Tucker came home one day and said that he’d been taken off of his line. So I went to the station to the office of the superintendent. I told him that I wanted to know why my husband, B.J. Tucker, had been taken off of his line. He said, ‘Now why are you taking this matter up? Why doesn’t Tucker take it up?’
"I said, ‘The sign-out man said that nothing in hell could take Tucker off that line but his wife’s activities in the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Now you put my husband back on his line, or I’ll be back!’
“It was amusing because he seemed to have a fear because a black woman would come to a superintendant with the power that he had, and speak to him in that manner. Well, the next time my husband got back on his run. Now there had been other times that porters had been penalized for certain things. Their wives would go and beg for them, plead for them. 'Please take my husband back!' But Sister Tucker didn’t do that!”
Finally, on August 25, 1937, twelve years to the day since the first Brotherhood meeting in Harlem, the Pullman Company surrendered. They signed the first agreement ever made between a large American corporation and a union of black workers.
The Brotherhood Gives Birth to the Civil Rights Movement
The Brotherhood brought out qualities of strength and courage in the porters and their wives. They became leaders in their communities, bought homes and sent their children to college. Thus the porters were able to give their sons and daughters the opportunities they themselves had been denied—to become lawyers and teachers and businessmen.
As an organization, the Brotherhood laid the foundation for the civil rights movement in this country. It inspired black people by proving that they could organize and get results.
In 1941, A. Philip Randolph forced President Franklin Roosevelt to create the Fair Employment Practices Commission by threatening a mass march on Washington by thousands of black people. Years later, he organized the famous 1963 March on Washington.
In 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama, Mrs. Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus for a white man. Her arrest sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which marked the beginning of the modern civil rights movement. Most people associate the boycott with Dr. Martin Luther King. But it was a Pullman porter, E.D. Nixon, who originated the idea and organized the boycott. Nixon was the president of the local NAACP and Rosa Parks was his assistant. Nixon recruited King to be the leader of the protest movement.
Being a Servant and a Man
The porter was often depicted as an object of ridicule in movies and songs. He had to struggle against this popular image of himself as an “Uncle Tom.”
But the porters knew that being a servant was simply a role that they put on and took off along with their uniforms. They weren’t ashamed of being servants, but they never lost sight of the fact that first and foremost, they were men.
As one of the porters in Miles of Smiles explains it, “Anything that you can do, you can do it with your head up. It’s what you think of yourself. If you think you’re an Uncle Tom, you’re an Uncle Tom. Whether you’re a Pullman porter or whatever you are. But I never thought that I was an Uncle Tom.”
Another porter explains, “I think that if you have the courage, dignity and respect for yourself, you can be a man while being a servant.”
And as far as smiling for tips goes, another porter says, “When the passenger comes in, and he’s smiling, you can be pleasant without “grinning” as we call it. You can treat him nice without that. You don’t have to do that. And if he’s gonna tip me because I’m gonna grin, I don’t need it and don’t want it. But if he tips me because of my service, that’s what I’m there for, to give him that service.”
The End of an Era
Today the elegant cars of the Pullman Company no longer roll across America. In 1969, the once mighty Pullman Company went out of business and the railroads stopped the practice of hiring only black men as porters. In 1978, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters ceased to exist as a separate organization and merged with the larger Brotherhood of Railway and Airline Clerks. In 1979, A. Philip Randolph died. And so, you would have to say, that the era of the Pullman porter is over.
There is a poem by Langston Hughes that contains these lines:
And porters on a railroad car
Who make, each time they make a bed
A hammock on a star
That sings in space
The dawn-song of a race.