Pullman Porters

Oscar’s Gift Reading Guide: Day 13

Pullman Porters

“Porters were expected to smile all the time and to keep their jackets spotless. They had to use their wages to pay for their own uniforms and caps, shoe polish, and shining cloths. Most of the money Porters made came from tips from passengers, so it paid to smile a lot, no matter what passengers asked for.

~ Oscar’s Gift: Planting Words with Oscar Micheaux

Pullman Porter
Pullman Porter, 1880s

Oscar Micheaux was not lucky in the land lottery, but he was able to get his first homestead by purchasing a “relinquished” claim from someone who didn’t want it. He saved the money he needed for the relinquishment by working as a porter for the Pullman Palace Car Company, which by the 1920s employed more African American men than any other company in the nation (National Museum of American History). The porters’ union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, was “the very first African-American labor union to sign a collective bargaining agreement with a major U.S. corporation” (A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum).

Learn more about the experiences of Pullman Porters from Steven Taylor, who shares stories and memorabilia from his grandfather, Emmanual Hurst:

Playwright Cheryl L. West was inspired by her grandfather’s experience to write Pullman Porter Blues, a play about three generations of Pullman Porters:

“When I started to research the story of how invisible the Pullman Porter men were, I wanted to give them justice, and I wanted to give them justice, and I wanted to say what was behind the smile of these men, because they had to smile so much, that there was a story, there was pain behind those smiles. And these were men of dignity and discipline, and they were so sharp. And what a wonderful thing to put on stage now, to show Black men taking care of their families, elevating each other.” ~ Cheryl L. West

Learn more about the play in the PBS NewsHour video, “In ‘Pullman Porter Blues,’ a Family’s Trip Through Time.”

Click HERE for the full Oscar’s Gift Reading Guide.

Oscar’s Gift: Planting Words with Oscar Micheaux is available from Amazon as a paperback and ebook.

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