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Determining the Facts

Reading 1: “Ambassadors of Service”

“Ambassadors of Service”, From the collections of the B&O Railroad Museum.
From the collections of the B&O Railroad Museum.

Questions for Reading 1

  1. Why do you think the jobs of sleeping car porter, porterette, and dining car waiter were looked upon as professional careers within the African-American communities during the late 19th and early 20th centuries?

  2. Why would providing excellent meals and comfortable sleeping accommodations help increase the amount of freight that was carried on a particular railroad?

 

In the 1870s, northern industrialist George Mortimer Pullman recruited former slaves as porters onboard his new sleeping cars. These porters were charged with the responsibility of providing impeccable service to his passengers. By the 1920s, Pullman was one of the largest private employers of African Americans in the United States. The expert service provided by these dedicated employees was a key focus in the advertising campaigns aimed at potential travelers.  However, the career had its roots in slavery and perpetuated negative stereotypes of African Americans as servants. For example, porters were commonly referred to generically as “George,” after Mr. George Pullman, instead of by their actual names. Nevertheless, many within the African-American community considered the job an admirable, distinguished, and professional career. During this time in our history, sleeping car porters received higher wages than other jobs available to African-Americans.

In an industry where competition was fierce, railroads distinguished themselves based on the quality of their services both on and off the train.  In addition to Pullman porters, African-Americans also worked as chefs and waiters onboard dining cars, and as redcaps at stations. Redcaps provided baggage handling and other customer services needed at railroad stations. Chefs and waiters delivered the legendary meals with flawless service to passengers. All of these amenities provided excellent selling points for the railroad to market to its customers. Many business travelers who were pleased by a fine meal and excellent sleeping accommodations were more than willing to trust the same lines with the care and prompt delivery of their products.

Frequently hired as female porters (or porterettes) and maids, African-American women also contributed to the successful operation of the railroad industry. Employing roughly 200 in 1926, the Pullman Company required their maids to meet certain physical guidelines. Most were between 20-39 years old, had a petite frame, and wore little makeup. Maids were primarily hired to tend to the customer service needs of female passengers. Duties could include cleaning car interiors, tending to children, sewing, and providing manicures and hairdressing services. Like many women during World War II, African-American women were called to fill traditional male jobs in the offices, shops, and onboard trains. The Pullman Company hired porterettes to perform duties similar to male porters, like preparing sleeping berths and helping passengers on and off the train.

 

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