The First African American Middle Class

I get it, why is a Caucasian writing about the first African-American middle class? I am not a historian, and I’m certainly not an African American historian. But, I do play an amateur historian as author of “Blackberries Are Red When Green,” my new book. Too many of us, especially Caucasians, do not know the history of the Pullman Porters, considered the first African American middle class.

Larry Tye does; also a Caucasian. Early this century, Tye tracked down still living Pullman Porters, recorded their stories, researched the George Pullman history, and in 2004, published what I believe to be the best history of these pioneers, “Rising from the Rails.”

In my novel, one of the two main characters is Joshua “Dutch” Clemons, a retired Pullman Porter who rode the rails for 42 years. After spending most of his adult life kowtowing to Caucasians, he chose to live simply, next to a river in a small village in northcentral Indiana, and fish. His rationale was that, yes, he would still be considered second class to white folk, but at least there would be fewer of them. The story is told first person though the eyes of young Kurt Baumann. Never would I attempt to put myself behind the eyes of an African American and speak their voice, or to use a phrase a neo-linguist recently coined: “people who do not burn.” Young Kurt lost his father to cancer a year prior to meeting Dutch. The two become fast friends as Dutch teaches Kurt about a history he would never learn in school, his people’s history, and shares tales of the railroad.

George Pullman formed his Pullman Palace Car Company in the late 1860s. He found his porters from the large pool of recently freed slaves, who initially were happy to turn in their overalls for a uniform, to smile and serve white folk. The children of slaves followed their parents to Pullman jobs, and even later their children became porters. Pullman’s reasoning: freed slaves understood servitude and would work grueling hours and long stretches for very little pay. Tipping, a new labor custom born in Europe, made its way to the United States following the Civil War. Pullman porters made their way because of tipping. The hours were punishing through the late 1800s. Pullman demanded 400 hours a month, sometimes 20 hours at a stretch, or 11 thousand miles — all for 10 cents an hour, plus tips, at that time, no more than a dime. By their recollection, Rockefeller tipped the worst: a penny.

Pullman extracted payment from the porters for uniforms, cleaning uniforms and, the tools for tips, shoe polish and brushes. Meals were half price.

It took decades for the conditions and pay to improve. Efforts to form the first African American union began in 1925. Pullman positioned spies everywhere. They fired anyone caught trying to assist or even suspected of assisting the unionizing effort. After struggling for 12 years, under the leadership of A. Philip Randolph, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters finally received recognition in 1937. Monthly hours then topped out at 240 hours, and overtime was paid for any hours over 240, the same as conductors. Hourly pay rose to 75 cents.

During the 1920s, Pullman’s best years, the fleet grew to nearly 10 thousand cars, employing 12 thousand porters, while ferrying 40 million passengers during its best year. Its sleeping cars bedded 100 thousand per night. By the mid-50s, Pullman passengers dropped to 11 million annually.

In 1969, the same year a man landed on the moon, the Pullman Car Company formally dissolved.

Just as slaves in the South sometimes took on the name of their owner, losing all previous identity and all family history, even birthdays, Pullman porters were given a generic name, George, as in “George come here. George do this. George, shine my shoes.” This so offended white men named George that they formed the Society for the Prevention of Calling Sleeping Car Porters George. Its best-known member, George Herman “Babe” Ruth.

Routes through the Jim Crow South spiked the porters’ anxieties, never wandering far from the train stations.

The porters persisted, owning homes, raising families and furthering their education, many earning doctor status and law degrees, including Thurgood Marshall, who worked the rails in the summers.

To my knowledge, other than Tye’s book, the Pullman Porter story has never been extensively told, certainly not in cinema, and certainly not in our schoolings’ history books. I put a spotlight on it in my novel.

Check out my web site: Keith Frohreich

Writer of books, columns and blogs; historical fiction, humor, satire, social commentary. Cook (the good, bad and oops). Disaster relief volunteer. Traveler.

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