Marian Pierce

Pullman Porters

I thought of James Alan McPherson, my favorite teacher at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop when I learned that Diane Nash’s stepfather, John Baker, had been a waiter on the Pullman cars, as was Mr. McPherson in his youth. He uses that experience in his story “On Trains,” from his collection of short stories, Hue and Cry: https://lithub.com/on-trains/

Where did the name Pullman cars come from? What was this history? How did Black men come to be employed as Pullman car porters? I started researching and found a great source of info from this site: https://interactive.wttw.com/a/main.taf-p=1,7,1,1,41.html

I learned that the Pullman cars were started by a Chicago industrialist named George Pullman in 1867, and that when a Pullman car was “leased to a railroad, it came “equipped” with highly-trained porters to serve the travelers. The cars were staffed with recently freed slaves, whom Pullman judged to be skilled in service and willing to work for low wages.” The porters were paid very little, but the tips (from some passengers – if you read Mr. McPherson’s story, you’ll see what I mean), made up the difference. They also worked long hours with only brief naps allowed.

Diane Nash’s stepfather belonged to the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, a labor union formed in 1925 by A. Philip Randolph and Milton Webster. She talked about her maternal grandmother being her biggest influence, but I wonder if she heard union talk growing up (although her stepfather would have been out of town for long periods of time). Also, A. Philip Randolph became influential in the civil rights movement.  I wish I could talk with Mr. McPherson about his short story “On Trains.” I wish I could talk to him about Diane Nash.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Marian Pierce