The Pullman Porters were more than men shining shoes, carrying bags, cleaning, and setting up the sleeping berth. These hardworking men were architects of the black middle class and were respected in the community. The Pullman Porters played a vital role in the Great Migration, helping transport the Chicago Defender newspaper to the south. The Chicago Defender published articles detailing the opportunities to live a better life in Chicago and encouraged southern blacks to move north. The Pullman Porters would sneak bundles of the Chicago Defender Newspaper on the trains and drop them off at barber and beauty shops so they could be distributed to Black southerners. As a result, thousands of southern blacks fled the south to the north.
While Pullman Porters were respected in the community, they endured low wages and long hours without overtime pay. To receive full pay, Pullman Porters had to put in 11,000 miles or 400 hours. In addition, Pullman Porters had to buy their uniforms and pay for their food. Overworked, poorly paid, and often subjected to racism and disrespect, the Pullman Porters were still required to do their jobs with a smile. The Pullman Porters felt it was imperative to form a union.
In 1925, the Pullman Porters formed The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first black labor union in the United States. A. Philip Randolph, laborer rights activist, was elected as their president. On August 25, 1937, after 12 years of resistance, the Pullman Company signed a labor agreement with the Pullman Porters and Maids that included increased wages and a limited working more than 240 hours a month. The landmark win was the first in U.S. history that a union of black workers reached a bargaining agreement with a major U.S. company.
The legacy of the Pullman Porters lives on today and is carried on through their descendants. Award-winning author, Art T. Burton, is the son of Arthur T. Burton, Sr., who was a Pullman Porter. Burton, Sr. worked on the Illinois Central, Chicago Burlington & Quincy, North Pacific, and the Union Pacific. His favorite railway was the Santa Fe traveling from Chicago to Los Angeles and San Francisco, where he spent most of the time as a Pullman Porter. Burton. Sr. met celebrities such as Jack Benny, Paul Newman, and Bob Hope.
Burton, Sr., enjoyed the brotherhood with the Pullman Porters. They looked out for and supported one another. When Burton, Sr. was at home, he would hang out at the Pullman Headquarters on the southside of Chicago to meet up with his Pullman brothers to socialize and play cards. “The Pullman Porters were the bedrock for the middle class in many cities around the country,” says Burton.
As a child, Burton loved trains because of his father. Burton remembers his father taking him on one of his routes to California. “As a 12-year-old, it was the most amazing experience,” says Burton. Burton, Sr.’s daily ritual was reading the newspaper at home. “I have a deep appreciation for reading because of my dad,” he said.
Burton, Sr. retired in 1968 after 38 years as a Pullman Porter. He was able to save enough money to send his two kids to college. Burton Sr. was most proud of building a house in Phoenix, IL with his own hands. Arthur T. Burton, Sr., passed away March 25, 2005, at the age of 101.
Burton wants people to know that his father, Arthur T. Burton, Sr., was committed to his family. They were not rich, but they had a decent life. His father was dedicated to his job and took great pride in wearing the Pullman Porter uniform. Burton has in possession his father’s Pullman Porter coat and hat.
Cook County Commissioner of the 6th District, Donna Miller, was the great-granddaughter of Norman Robinson who was a Pullman Porter on the Santa Fe rail.
Robinson lived in Chicago on 64th & Saint Lawrence. Robinson married Anna Mae Black, one of the Chicago Women’s Golf Club founders established in 1937. Miller remembers going to visit her great-grandfather, who she called Grandpa Norman. “Growing up, I spent a great deal of time with my great-grandfather,” says Miller.
Miller remembers her great-grandfather being a sharp dresser. “Grandpa Norman always wore a suit and a hat. He never left home without his hat. I can only imagine it came from a time when he was working hard as a porter and had respect for himself as a man. He earned dignity and respect because of the lifestyle he chose,” says Miller.
Miller honors her great-grandfather on her social media for Black History Month with a photo of Robinson at her college graduation at Howard University. “It means so much to know that a Pullman Porter could stand witness to his great-granddaughter graduating from college!” says Miller.
Preserving and honoring family history is important to Miller. As a mother of two sons, Miller wants them to know their family history and legacy. “I tell my two sons the reason I want to them know where they came from is so no one can take that away from them,” says Miller.
The Pullman Porters were pioneers dedicated to their jobs and influenced economic and social justice. Their sacrifice and contributions played an essential role in this country that will have a lasting legacy in black history.
To learn about the history of the Pullman Porters, visit the National A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum, 10406 S. Maryland Avenue, Chicago, IL 60628.
Tammy Gibson is an author, re-enactor, and black history traveler. Find her on social media @sankofatravelher.