Coretta King was talking about the book Those Pullman Blues, an oral history about the men and women who worked for American railroads and the Pullman Company aboard our nation’s passenger trains in the glory days when train travel in this country was the only game in town. She also touched on the exploitation and mistreatment of these employees – especially by the parental Pullman Company – until the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters union under the leadership of A. Philip Randolph took on the Pullman Company and won.
What’s unique about this book is that it tells the story of this aspect of African-America history from the perspective of the railroad employees themselves.
And when you stop and think about this history, doesn’t it seem rather incredible that all of the service capacity positions on the trains were – in the parlance of the times – Negro? And that they were watched over by white supervisors?
Doesn’t that system ring a bell? If you know your history, it ought to! The plantation system of the black slaves and white overseers was transferred directly from the plantation to the railroad car after the sudden freedom of the slaves through the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863.
George Pullman saw an opportunity to hire a cheap labor force who could continue serving a white clientele of cigar smoking, wealthy businessmen and their families. Psychologically, why wouldn’t a white person enjoy being pampered like royalty by a black servant whom society had already stereotyped? After all, at that time society was perfectly comfortable with the system.
There have been those who have said that my book is biased toward the African-American perspective because I have taken the side of these employees and slanted history against the railroads and the Pullman Company. I’ve merely taken an obscure facet of American history and placed it in the spotlight for further consideration. Which brings us to the heart of the matter. There are really two histories here: the African-American and the White-American. We already know the black perspective, but what was the white?
Romanticism. White society looks back at that time as a very nostalgic and wonderful era in American history. There were the great trains such as the Super Chief and the Twentieth Century Limited. And the porters and waiters, barbers and maids were all a part of that romanticism.
And yes, from the outside looking in, it was a romantic time. There’s no getting around that our industrial nation produced some of the finest trains in the world with service to match.
But the most telling aspect of this history is that white America saw nothing unusual in this arrangement. It had been so ingrained in our society that most people didn’t give it a second thought.
Every good story has a hero, and in ours it’s A. Philip Randolph, organizer of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters union. Founded on August 25, 1925 with just five hundred porters, the Brotherhood grew to wage a tumultuous twelve-year battle with the Pullman Company to force them to recognize the union. Thus was the forerunner of the modern civil rights movement born.
For the thousands of African-American families who have railroad employees in their lineage, these oral histories provide an excellent opportunity to learn about the day-today environment in which these individuals literally lived.
And what can the rest of us learn from this history? Perhaps how hope and determination will eventually overcome injustice.
Those Pullman Blues has been newly designed – with an expanded selection of images – and is available as an eBook and a 208-page paperback edition.
I invite you to look over the following photos and excerpt from the book as a preview of what awaits you inside.
Thanks for your time,
David D. Perata
About the Author
David D. Perata rode the passenger trains of the Southern Pacific Railroad as a boy in the San Francisco Bay Area, where he first encountered the African-American waiters and porters who worked on those trains. He formed a special bond with them that lasted until his own employment as a porter with Amtrak in 1980.
Working side-by-side with veteran porters and waiters who were running out their final miles before retiring, he listened as they told their stories of “the great days” when they worked such luxury trains as the Super Chief, Lark and Daylight. He was moved by their obvious pride in giving service during an era that they felt had more class than contemporary society.
By the time he began interviewing the men in this book, Perata was an accomplished freelance writer and photographer. He was amazed at the positive perspective these men have maintained with regard to their good and bad experiences aboard the trains. And because David worked as a porter himself, he was perfectly suited to ask the questions that only somebody intimately familiar with the job could ask.