There was an old saying among the black employees of the Pullman Car Company: “Lincoln freed the slaves, and the Pullman Company hired ‘em.” In fact, the Pullman Company, created by George M. Pullman in 1867, was the single largest employer of blacks in America after the Civil War and well into the 20th century. And while many people in America, particularly the Pullman Company itself, felt that Pullman was one of the best things to ever happen to blacks, many thought it was simply another form of slavery.
George Pullman began hiring freed slaves as soon as the Civil War ended, recognizing a huge and available labor pool, and also believing that ex-slaves, due to their previous roles as servants, would make excellent car porters. Black porters assisted in the care and comfort of the passengers. They took care of luggage, shined shoes, brushed coats, turned down beds, and looked to any need or request of a Pullman passenger. For former slaves, it was a prestigious job that filled them with pride, paid them more money than they had ever seen, and allowed them the opportunity to travel the country. The porters’ friendly, smiling, conscientious service was a hallmark of the Pullman Company, and one that George Pullman often said he could not be successful without.
By the end of the nineteenth century, Pullman porters still were all black, but they no longer were humble ex-slaves, often meek and easily grateful for the chance to work for any sort of payment. They were now the children of slaves, free blacks who had grown up in a different world: in a more educated and self-reliant black society, in a market-based economic environment. This new generation of African Americans now saw themselves as citizens, and their labor as a commodity no longer to be taken for granted or given away for a pittance.
Here and there throughout the Pullman Company, porters, after decades of witnessing white railroad workers conduct labor strikes, began to ask for higher wages and less hours. Porters were paid small salaries—between $25-$50 per month by the turn of the century—that were supplemented with tips from the passengers. Like food service workers today who also rely on tips to make a decent living, porters had to silently endure all sorts of degrading treatment from white passengers in order to receive their tips, a necessity for them to feed their families. Porters also often worked shifts of anywhere from twelve to thirty-six hours without a break, and any porter who fell asleep, lagged in his work, was not fresh and crisp in appearance and demeanor, would often find himself dismissed from service for failing to uphold the Pullman standard. Porters also had to purchase their own work supplies, such as shoeshine equipment, which cut into their monthly pay.
The porters’ plight first received something like national attention in 1904, after the publication of a 46-page pamphlet titled, “Freemen Yet Slaves Under ‘Abe’ Lincoln’s Son, Or Service and Wages of Pullman Porters.” The booklet, circulated around the country, was written by a former Pullman porter who had been dismissed ostensibly for poor performance, but apparently for unionizing. “Freemen Yet Slaves” detailed the wages and working conditions of Pullman porters, and contrasted it with the pay and hours of the white Pullman employees (conductors, managers, superintendents). “The Pullman Company regards the six thousand or more porters now in the service as so many slaves to be used in whatever way they can be made to bring the company the most money.”
Anderson called out Pullman Company President Robert T. Lincoln for taking his “blood money” salary of $50,000 a year—which was more than $4,000 per month—while not lifting a finger to improve the lives or redress the grievances of the porters, who would have to work 150 years to accumulate what Lincoln made in one year. “The situation that confronted your father was chattel slavery,” Anderson admonished the son of the Great Emancipator, “The thing that confronts you now is industrial slavery, which is even worse in some respects than was the former.”
The plight of Pullman porters and their wages left the public view for about a decade before being brought back to light in 1915. At that time, a congressionally appointed commission on industrial relations became concerned over the seemingly low salaries of Pullman porters, considering it degrading and promoting discrimination. The issue made front-page news in major newspapers, especially when the company’s chairman of the board, Robert T. Lincoln, testified before the commission.
Lincoln testified that the salaries of porters “annoys me very much indeed,” called it antiquated, and said “there ought to be a change in our system.” But, he said, tips would exist no matter what the porters’ wages were, and for the company to increase wages it would have to then increase ticket prices. This would likely cause passengers to tip less or not at all (blaming the porters for getting a higher pay) and would, in the end, cause the porters to earn less money in totality. Basically, Lincoln said that whether wages were raised or not, the public would be the ones ultimately paying the price, either through tips or higher fees.
Lincoln did defend his company and its policies and treatment of its black employees. “The colored race, as we know, were subject to great limitations in the past to obtain employment in this country, and I believe as a matter of fact that outside of what you might call the learned professions that they got into … that the one element that has done more to uplift them is the service in the Pullman Co.,” Lincoln told the committee.
According to one newspaper report of the hearing, a committee member asked Lincoln if he thought his father would approve of the company’s policies toward its black employees. Lincoln indicated his resentment by ignoring the question.
In response to the federal hearing, The Pullman Company did raise porters’ salaries, but not immediately. In 1925, after 12 years of effort, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters became the first African American labor union charted by the American Federation of Labor.