As a child traveling Pullman cars with my family through the south and on trips out west, I had a romance with the railroads. Smiling porters, seemingly as happy as I. Gleaming brass and wood, the freshest of linens, service whenever we wanted it, and always with that smile. I had no idea at the time what a moment in history we were caught in.
The first Pullman porters were recruited from the first generation of black men to be freed. It had to be considered a desirable occupation at the time. Porters were trained in schools and wore their uniform proudly, but their working conditions were horrendous. Meager wages, hurried meals, 400 hours of work per month, catering to rich white passengers, some of whom felt free to buzz all night and call any porter “George,” after George Pullman.
And yet the Pullman porters’ contribution to the Civil Rights Movement was immense. Forming the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in 1937, it was the first organized black labor union and wages finally improved. Porters were couriers for “The Chicago Defender,” an African American newspaper that advertised job and living opportunities in the urban north, helping to encourage the migration of African Americans from the rural south.
I learned all this while enjoying the “Pullman Porter Blues” theatrical production at Seattle Repertory Theatre. The year is 1937, on the eve of the first black heavyweight championship, and hopes are high for Joe Lewis among porters aboard the Panama Limited, bound from Chicago to New Orleans. Three generations of men serve as porters. Musicians and singer Sister Juba are along for the ride, wailing blues, spirituals and slave era work songs. The set is designed like a fast moving train and moves seamlessly between luxury Pullman cars to cargo car and caboose, and I’m in heaven….
And this ride isn’t over. Next stop is Arena Stage in Washington D.C. (opening November 23). We are casting our ballots out here and sending local playwright Cheryl L. West’s “Pullman Porter Blues” to “the other Washington,” as we call it. Consider them both, our vote and this production, from Seattle with love.