On John Lewis Ellis, Herman Nesbitt, et al

This post is a specific nod to the late John Lewis Ellis and the late Herman Nesbitt, both proud Pullman porters and members of my extended family.  It is also a respectful and appreciative nod to all porters as well as to the leaders, rank-and-file members, and supporters of their  union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP).  

At one time, The Pullman Palace Railway Company (AKA The Pullman Company) employed more Blacks than any other business in the United States. It  employed porters to shine shoes, carry bags, wait tables, make beds, clean, and in various and sundry other ways, attend to the desires of its passengers. The Company initially sought out former slaves for employment because of their supposed inclination to servility, and later to some extent sought out Southern blacks for similar reasons.   

Porters, the “aristocrats of black workers,” came from varying backgrounds. While some lacked education, others had received college diplomas. They were highly regarded in their communities and were then as now invariably described as “dignified.” Nonetheless, working conditions for the porters were frequently wretched; workers relied excessively on tips for a livable wage, often went without sleep, and were required to work erratic schedules. With support from the porters, as well as women and youth, agitation for unionization culminated in the establishment of BSCP.

The impact of the porters  and their union on African American society is inestimable. Porters were channels for information between urban and rural communities they traversed, as well as ladders to middle-class and elite status for their children and grandchildren. Leaders of the unionization included women such as Rosina Tucker, as well as  more celebrated figures (e.g. E. D. Nixon and A. Philip Randolph) who later became seminal figures in the Civil Rights Movement of the mid-twentieth century, and who lay the groundwork for the 1963 March on Washington, D. C. 

I and younger generations of my clan are indebted to all Pullman porters, particularly Herman Nesbitt, whose work led him from live-in servant to homeowner and haven for my grandmother, aunts, and cousins, and to John Lewis Ellis, porter and college graduate who stressed upon me the importance of learning and education. 



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2 responses to “On John Lewis Ellis, Herman Nesbitt, et al

  1. Hi Gwendolyn…. great blog. What a great history for your family. I’ve done a lot on the Pullman Company, porters, etc. on my site,,,

    I just bought a copy of the Pullman Magazine from the late 40s. Classic… lots of af am history re the porters. I will put it up.

    The Pullman Company – known mainly for the strike – which really involved the factory. But the sleeping car service is still a little known aspect of history. When I was a kid I took trains with my parents – my mother wouldn’t fly. The Pullman porters were always polite and professional. This was in 1959 – 63 … when first class sleeping car travel was declining. But Pullman was still a first class operation. Nothing like that exists. Amtrak is like riding a bus. Even first or business class on planes doesn’t reach Pullman service. And I was seeing Pullman before it went out of business. For the porters, it was difficult but good job = after it was unionized far better. There were still about 21 beds per car – so it was a full time position involving everything from being a porter to being a shrink to being a nursemaid to delivering babies. The Porters were really the foundation for the black middle class. In the late 1960s – I’ve talked to Pullman porters about this period. When companies like Southern Pacific were destroying the passenger service while Santa Fe was attempting to keep it going. Santa FE did not want to join Amtrak. During the 1920s Pullman offered the equivalent of nearly 100,000 beds a night and the Porters were the foundation. Like no postman, no mail.

  2. Don

    Great post, Gwen. Thank you.

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