The history of the Pullman Maids has been overlooked from the history of the Pullman Company. Newberry Library’s latest exhibition reclaims the Pullman Maid’s place in history to the forefront.
The exhibit, “Handmaidens for Travelers: The Pullman Company Maids,” displays archival materials for visitors that have not been available to the public, such as the Pullman Maid’s instruction manual, employee cards, applications, and a handwritten work history. The exhibit displays images that give a glimpse of the Pullman Maids’ responsibilities and duties, including styling hair, manicures, cleaning the bathroom, and caring for the white women passengers and her children. The items of the exhibit come from the Pullman Company Records from Newberry, gift of the Pullman family, and the Pullman Company.
Miriam Thaggert, Associate Professor of English at SUNY Buffalo, is the exhibit’s curator. Her research comes from the California State Railroad Museum, Library of Virginia, University of Virginia, and images from the Minnesota Historical Society. Thaggert is the author of the book “Riding Jane Crow: African American Women on the American Railroad.”
Thaggert was inspired to write about the Pullman Maids while researching the Pullman Porters. An important resource Thaggert used for her research included the database from the Chicago Defender and the New York Amsterdam News. Thaggert came across a bio of a woman applying to be a Pullman Maid. “I was curious about why I never heard of the women who worked as maids and wondered what their experience was like on the railroad. Did their experiences match the familiar narratives we have about the railroad in American culture? Why is it that when we talk about the railroad in the United States, we don’t often think about how black and women of color experience that particular form of transportation? For me, it was an attempt to fill in the gaps of my knowledge and what black women experienced on the American train,” says Thaggert. It is estimated that 200+ women were Pullman Maids.
Working as a Pullman Maid was, in most instances, better than other employment opportunities, but they had to endure racial and gender discrimination and reprimanded for violations such as looking a certain way and/or insubordination. The exhibit has an instruction manual that highlights the rules and responsibilities of the Pullman Maids.
Thaggert was also curious about the people of color that worked for the Pullman Company. There were Filipino men, Chinese men, and women. “I wonder what their experience was like and the working relationship with the black Pullman Porters and Maids,” says Thaggert.
Entering the exhibit is a monitor with rotating images of Pullman Maids. Thaggert found the employee cards of Josephine Laura Brown, Mae Josephine Cole, Rosa Lilliebelle Davis, Behetherlon Louise Glass, Mary Elizabeth Harrison, Carrie Belle Love, Helen Maude Wood, and Mae Louise Miller. Thaggert loved the image of Nannie Bell Crevin, who was highly dressed up, wearing pearls around her neck, dangling earrings, and a Josephine Baker hairstyle. Crevin started working as a Pullman Maid after her husband, who was a Pullman Porter, passed away. “I’m curious about Crevin’s history and circumstances and what made her work as a Pullman Maid after her husband died,” says Thaggert.
Women’s history often has been overlooked and forgotten. Thaggert says that the stories, narratives and history of black women must be valued. “For the most part, people have not valued our experience. First and foremost, we have to hear, narrate and record the stories of ordinary black women, not just celebrities. That’s why I was fascinated doing the research for my book. I was interested in the ordinary black women whose stories have not been recorded. I encourage women to talk to their mothers and grandmothers and document their stories so they can be passed on to future generations of women in the family. That has to happen,” says Thaggert.
Thaggert says that the history of the Pullman Company is not complete without the Pullman Maids. “The Pullman Maids offer a different perspective on this familiar history that we have on the Pullman Porters. I’m not dismissing the Pullman Porter experience because that history is significant. It’s important to include a discussion on the Pullman Maids so that we have a sense of how this history looks and feels when we look at it from the eyes of the black woman. It’s important to have both the Pullman Porters and Maids experiences discussed when we talk about the railroad experience,” says Thaggert.
Handmaidens for Travelers: The Pullman Company Maids runs June 3-September 16, 2022 at the Newberry Library. Admission is free.
Miriam Thaggert’s book “Riding Jane Crow: African American Women on the American Railroad” can be purchased at https://bookshop.newberry.org/riding-jane-crow-african-american-women-american-railroad or https://www.press.uillinois.edu/books/?id=28nsg7gk9780252044526
Tammy Gibson is an author, re-enactor, and black history traveler. Find her on so