“What have the poet Claude McKay, the filmmaker Oscar Micheaux, the explorer Matthew Henson, the musician “Big Bill” Broonzy and college president Benjamin Mays in common?
They all worked for the Pullman Company, which until 1969 ran the sleeper service on the U.S. railroads, and was at one time “the largest employer of Negroes in America and probably the world.” Blacks, preferably those with “jet-black skin,” supplied “the social separation… vital for porters to safely interact with white passengers in such close quarters.”
Former Boston Globe journalist Tye (The Father of Spin) interviewed as many surviving porters as he could find as well as their children, and immersed himself in autobiographies, oral histories, biographies, newspapers, company records-wherever the porter might be glimpsed, including fiction and film. Entertaining detail abounds: Bogart was a solid tipper; Seabiscuit traveled in a “specially modified eighty-foot car cushioned with the finest straw.” So does informing detail: the long hours, the dire working conditions, the low pay, the lively idiom, the burdensome rules.”
This from a Publisher’s Weekly write up of Larry Tye’s recent book “Rising from the Rails”, a fascinating account of Pullman porters, touching upon many related topics and personalities including the civil rights movement, A. Phillip Randolph, E.D. Nixon, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, etc.
More importantly, in putting together this book Larry Tye has brought surviving Pullman porters unexpected recognition and a celebration of their lives. He has included as many ex-porters in readings, interviews, and other book release functions across the country, as possible. One ex-porter died a mere four days after attending a Library of Congress function with Larry, and several others have died since Larry interviewed them.
More about “Rising from the Rails” and Larry Tye here.