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Against all odds, Pullman porters formed a union

The nation's railroad porters banded together in the 1930s to form the first all-black union and jump-start the civil rights movement

Sunday, February 24, 2002

By Ervin Dyer, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

They were a fraternity, these 10,000 black men united in their service on the luxury passenger rail lines of their time.

A black waiter serves white passengers in a dining car; a typical railroad scene from 1868-1968.

Courteous, dignified, diligent, they wore crisp jackets, black pants and easy smiles, but the struggle they fought for better work conditions laid the foundations for the civil rights movement.

Their carriages -- the Pullman Cars -- were ornate showcases designed to accommodate America's elite as they crisscrossed the country during the golden days of rail travel. While they made beds, cleaned spittoons and shined shoes, the porters met celebrities such as Jackie Gleason, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby.

Among the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters was Harold T. Tardy Sr. of East Liberty. He died in 1964, but a conversation with his daughter, Margaret Tardy Miles, who now lives in Cincinnati, carries a person back to his days of four-star service and hospitality.

For nearly a half-century, she remembered, her dad worked as a porter. He traveled mostly at night, working the Pittsburgh & Lake Erie lines running to the nation's capital, Pittsburgh and New York City.

Her dad loved New York, she said, because he was a baseball fan and could take in the games during his off hours.

On the job, Tardy wore a black uniform and a white shirt with a starched collar. His black cap had a small bill. He never wanted to travel south of the Mason-Dixon line, hoping to avoid the harsher treatment that black people and porters experienced in the Jim Crow South.

Back at home, the family lived in East Liberty, and Tardy, even during the Depression, was able to buy a home for his wife, Thelma, and three young children.

Young Margaret knew her father was proud of his work.

What her father didn't often share was that these bright and gilded rolling palaces had a dark side.

The work culture for the Pullman porters was rooted in the legacy of slavery.

 
 
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Pullman Porter Museum
Chicago, Illinois

   
 

In 1865, two years after the Emancipation Proclamation, Chicago industrialist George Pullman turned routine rail travel into a lavish experience with the introduction of his Pullman Cars. Each came equipped with a couch, bed, dresser, comfortable towels and a porter.

All of the porters were black men, and patrons called each of them "George," a slight that grew out of thinking of them "as one of George Pullman's boys."

In the days before they were unionized, it was an indignity that was unavoidable. The porters fought back in ways that were subtle but direct.

"They used to call my father 'George,' " said Margaret Tardy. "But he didn't accept that." Her father had finished the 11th grade and spoke very well, she said.

"Dad would point to his name tag, greet the passenger with a smile and respond that he had a name, and his name was Harold."

Pullman himself may have encouraged that degrading treatment of his porters. There's a saying passed down through oral history that captures the attitude Pullman is believed to have had toward his black workers. It goes: "When Lincoln freed the slaves, George Pullman hired them."

While a job as a porter was promising -- for its travel, steady work and tips -- the hours were long (most logged 400 hours a month) and the pay low ($27.50 a month).

The porters had to pay for their own meals and supply their own uniforms and shoe polish. On overnight trips, they were allocated only four hours of sleep -- and that was deducted from their pay.

Worst of all may have been the erosion of their humanity.

Newly freed slaves saw the porter positions as an opportunity to advance, but over time, the porters slowly became symbols of black subservience.

According to Beth Bates, a professor of history at Wayne State University in Detroit, Pullman crafted this system to stereotype his porters as lowly attendants, while his conductors, who were white, were seen as leaders and administrators.

The porters toiled under these conditions for nearly 60 years, until rumblings for change and better treatment grew louder.

In 1925, their struggle led them to Harlem and to A. Philip Randolph, the force that steadied their organization and produced the first black union in America.

"It wasn't about just bread-and-butter unionism," said Bates. "It was about a struggle for human dignity."

Right of way

Randolph cast a huge shadow.

A minister's son, he was born in Florida in 1889 and rose from the working class to become a labor activist, believing it was a way to give black workers dignity and social equality.

While passengers on Pullman car trains such as the Pennsylvania Limited, which crossed the Susquehanna River on it route, were served by black porters who, as newly freed slaves, saw the positions as an opportunity to advance. But, over time, the porters slowly became symbols of black subservience.

He had waited on tables, carried luggage and operated an elevator. He never received a degree but educated himself by taking advantage of free university classes. He stared down presidents, union bosses and, eventually, George Pullman.

It took 12 brutal years from that first meeting in Harlem in 1925 for the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters to be formally recognized as a union.

Activists were beaten and spied on, and some were thrown from trains to try to break the union-organizing push.

Margaret Tardy Miles said her father talked often of Randolph, and Harold Tardy considered himself a disciple of the labor leader. She even had a chance to sit next to the labor organizer at a Pittsburgh dinner. She knew nothing of the fights, firings and other ills that were part of the formation of the union.

"Dad never mentioned anything about being in danger," she said. "If it happened, the children didn't know about it."

Ironically, in forming the union, some of the porters' first battles were in the black community.

In Chicago, the Pullman headquarters and the city where a majority of the porters lived, many blacks shunned the idea of forming a porters' union. They were already excluded from other unions and didn't trust them. Also, Pullman's company was respected for the money it put into the black community.

Attitudes began to change, said Bates, after ministerial support and black- newspaper editorials began to champion a black union as a way to lift up the rights of all black workers.

Randolph's newspaper, The Messenger, advocated that a black union "must work for completing the unfinished task of emancipation."

By 1935, Randolph's fiery rhetoric had managed to raise half a million dollars in his effort to gain company recognition. In 1937, Pullman signed a contract recognizing the Brotherhood as a union.

The first thing to go: the practice of addressing the porters as George.

The union's motto was: "Stands for service, not servitude." The porters gained pay increases, shorter work weeks, a reduction in the amount of miles they had to travel and widespread respect.

In fact, they became the most significant and influential black labor group in America, a status that lasted until the 1960s, when rail travel began to fade.

In its formative years, the union also increased the stature of Randolph, who became a powerful civil rights figure.

Randolph thought it was a disgrace that black taxpayer money was being used to support industries that refused to hire black workers. In 1941, he planned a national protest in Washington, D.C., soliciting and finding support among black churches and social groups that wanted to bring attention to the inequities. The protest had been planned for July 4, but before it occurred, President Roosevelt signed an executive order decreeing an end to racial discrimination in government and the defense industries.

The subtext, said Bates, was that "economic citizenship meant first-class citizenship."

Randolph continued to build networks between black organizations to keep pressure on the unions and government to force change.

He was the vigor behind the 1963 March on Washington, which was an idea that actually took root for him in the '40s, during World War II.

Men of distinction

The numbers of surviving Pullman porters are dwindling today. The Brotherhood ended in 1978, when declining rail travel reduced its ranks, and the union merged with the larger, integrated Brotherhood of Railway and Airline Clerks.

In the past decade, though, they've received some long overdue attention. There have been books; oral history projects; the 1995 opening of the A. Philip Randolph/Pullman Porter Museum Gallery in Chicago; the Pullman Blues Tour, a whistle-stop train tour that highlighted the victories of the porters, from Feb. 9-16, 1997; and a new Showtime movie, "10,000 Black Men Named George," which gives porters a chance to tell their stories.

Most Pullman porters lived in Chicago, New York City or in the South. But there were a few in Pittsburgh, and those who encountered them never forgot them.

Homewood's James Austin, 77, said he glowed whenever his porter uncle, Spurgeon "Sonny" Austin, visited. "Sonny" stayed with the family instead of bunking with other porters in a boarding home on 28th Street in the Strip District.

Sonny churned out dozens of tales from his travels and fascinated his nephew because he "could make a bed faster than anyone in the house," a skill honed on the rails.

Memories are fresh for Vera Hubbard, too. As a young woman living in bustling Terrace Village in the 1940s Hill District, she recalled her neighbor, Mr. Stallworth.

"I didn't know him very well," she said, her voice blushing on the phone from her Penn Hills home. "But he appeared to be the epitome of a gentleman. Always well-dressed, he was handsome in his uniform and always carrying a suitcase.

"He was mesmerizing."

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