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.