Being a Pullman porter was one of the jobs that helped build the black middle class in America, and Pullman porters were key figures in the civil-rights movement.

Share story

WASHINGTON — The Pullman Co. ID card on display at the National Museum of African American History and Culture tells the story of the opportunities, and limitations, the descendants of slaves found working on the railroad.

The ID belonged to Thomas McCord, a Pullman porter based out of Union Station in Louisville, Ky. The ID indicates he was born in January 1886, and shows his face in a fuzzy, black-and-white photo taken during World War II. It is likely he’d been attending to sleeping-car passengers’ needs for many years.

But one thing hadn’t changed during that time: Although McCord worked in one of the premier jobs black men could have between the Civil War and the civil-rights era, his relatives had to use separate waiting rooms and ride in separate train-car compartments on the railroad that provided him a living.

White passengers probably addressed McCord as “George,” as in George Pullman, founder of the company that built the passenger cars. All porters were required to answer to “George.”

Despite the indignities, hard work and low pay, the job was less physically taxing than farm or factory work and gave black men the opportunity to see other parts of the country, said Larry Tye, who wrote a book about the Pullman porters, “Rising From the Rails.”

Along with the postal service, it was one of the jobs that helped build the black middle class in America, Tye said. “It was better money and kind of work than most blacks could get,” he said. “It was on so many levels an opportunity for them.”

Pullman porters were also key figures in the civil-rights movement.

E.D. Nixon, a Pullman porter in Montgomery, Ala., helped organize the bus boycott in 1955, and asked a young minister named Martin Luther King Jr. to lead it.

In 1925, A. Phillip Randolph organized the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first black trade union, and served as its president. Randolph was later named chairman of the 1963 March on Washington, where King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

Tye calls Randolph “the grandfather” of the civil-rights movement.

Behind the case containing McCord’s ID, one of the smaller objects in the museum’s collection, is one of the larger ones: a full-size train coach car, Southern Railway 1200.

The 44-seat car was built by Pullman in 1918, and it roamed the Southern’s 6,000-mile system that wove through states such as Kentucky, Mississippi, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina.

In 1940, Southern shop employees in Spartanburg, S.C., retrofitted the 1200 to split the car into two sections, the one in front for white passengers, and the section in the back for “colored” passengers.

Contractors in Stearns, Ky., restored the car to its 1940 appearance before it was moved to the museum in 2014.

Michele Gates Moresi, curator of collections at the museum, which opens to the public Saturday, said the section for black passengers and the restroom they could use are smaller. “The differences are subtle, not stark,” she said.

Spencer Crew, a professor of U.S. history at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., said it cost railroads more to provide separate accommodations in Southern states in accordance with Jim Crow laws there, but they couldn’t risk offending the cultural sensibilities of their important freight customers.

“They weren’t happy to have segregated cars,” Crew said, “but they weren’t willing to buck Southern tradition.”

By the time civil-rights legislation had dismantled segregation laws in the South, intercity passenger trains were in a death spiral. The traveling public had abandoned Pullman cars for interstate highways and jumbo jets.

Amtrak picked up the skeletal remains of the nation’s passenger-train network in 1971, and the last of the Pullman porters retired not long after.

While few porters are still living, their descendants have achieved stature in public life.

The late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall was the son of a Pullman porter. So is former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson is the grandson of one. “There are very few people who are prominent African Americans who didn’t have a relative who was a porter,” Tye said.