Saturday was National Train Day. This year, Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station hosted an event honoring the Pullman porters, the African-American men who worked long hours as attendants on the luxurious sleeper trains operated by the Pullman company from 1868 to 1969.
The first porters George Pullman hired after the Civil War were former slaves. In the 1920s, over 20,000 African-Americans worked for the Pullman company, making it one of the largest employers of African-American men.
Today, there are only about 40 surviving Pullman porters, four of whom were at the event in Philadelphia this Saturday.
The Pullman porters played an important but unsung role in the history of this country. In 1925 they formed the first Black labor union under the stewardship of A. Philip Randolph called the “brotherhood of sleeping car porters.” They helped pave the way for the Civil Rights movement and are also credited with building the Black middle class in this country.
Of course, things are not perfect for black workers–black lesbian women and black trans people in particular are chronically and systematically underpaid/underemployed/unemployed. But it’s always amazing to me to see how unions could actually improve things–actually made a difference.
I think it’s wonderful that the current white house supports and protects labor–but now labor needs to work on unionizing the people who need it most: women, youths, non-U.S. citizens.