Rising from the Rails Pullman Porters and the Making of the Black Middle Class

Larry Tye

Holt Paperbacks



Trade Paperback

352 Pages



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A Chicago Tribune Best Book

From the 1860s, when George Pullman first hired African-Americans to work on his luxury sleeping cars, until the mid-twentieth century, when the Pullman Company ended its sleeper service, the Pullman porter held one of the best jobs in the black community and one of the worst on the train. He was maid and valet, nanny and doctor, concierge and occasional undertaker to cars full of white passengers. His very presence embodied the romance of the railroad. But behind the porter's ever-present smile lay a daily struggle for dignity on the long trips that separated him from his family while exposing him to the more privileged culture of well-heeled riders. Rising from the Rails depicts the paradox of life as a Pullman porter and provides us with a missing chapter of American history.

Larry Tye vividly re-creates the singular setting of a Pullman sleeping car, a capsule of space and time where all the rules of racial engagement came into focus and many were suspended—so long as the train was moving. The dichotomy of the porter's working life—duties not far removed from slavery, opportunities not available to other black workers in Jim Crow America—made him both a representative of his time and a trailblazer. The period of the porter's employment by the Pullman Company coincides almost exactly with the struggle of newly freed slaves for the full legal freedoms finally achieved in the 1960s, and his largely unrecognized role in this struggle was critical. As the patriarch of black labor unions and the civil rights movement, he was among the first African-Americans to effectively claim a right to respect. He was also the father and grandfather of the African-Americans who today run cities and states, sit on corporate and editorial boards, and number among this country's leading professors, scientists, and clergy.

Drawing on extensive interviews with dozens of African-American railroad workers and their descendants, Rising from the Rails tells the quintessentially American story of how a minority finds a foothold in the workplace—and in the nation's psyche.


Praise for Rising from the Rails

"This is well-researched and sympathetic history, a slice of Americana worth knowing."—The Seattle Times

"A valuable window into a long-underreported dimension of African-American history."—Newsday

"Rescuing an icon from the edge of oblivion is no easy task; making room for him in the collective memory is harder still. But revealing his profound influence on our social and cultural institutions today requires insight and imagination. Larry Tye has both."—San Francisco Chronicle

"Drawing upon extensive and meticulous research—as well as in-depth interviews with 40 or so former porters and their families—[Tye] depicts the absorbing saga of the Pullman porter, a story firmly rooted in the dynamic growth of the American railroad in the years following the Civil War . . . Tye makes a compelling case for the intricate connections between the porters' struggles for economic justice and the quickening pace of the civil rights movement in the 20th century—from the formation of the National Negro Congress in the mid-1930s, to Randolph's threatened 1941 march on Washington, to the 1963 march on Washington and beyond. Throughout, Tye sustains our interest, weaving together several levels of narrative while keeping the stories of ordinary porters squarely at the center. The result is a lively and engaging chronicle that adds yet another dimension to the historical record."—James A. Miller, The Boston Globe

"Larry Tye has written a much-deserved love song to the forgotten men of the civil rights and labor movements—the Pullman porters who defeated a major corporation, helped finance numerous civil rights battles, spread news and culture nationwide, and set a high standard for dignity."—Julian Bond, chairman, NAACP Board of Directors

"This is one terrific book. It's a chapter of American history about which few of us know much, and it's a reminder of what life was life for African-Americans in this country, at least until the last few decades. But it's mostly about these men—their courage, their tenacity, and their hopes and dreams for their children and grandchildren. Many of them are no longer with us, but they should and would be rightly proud of how much their kids and grandkids have achieved and how much they have given to this country."—Michael Dukakis, former governor of Massachusetts, former vice-chair of Amtrak Board

"A reasoned assessment of the Pullman porters' role in black America. The Pullman porter's life, reporter/biographer Tye suggests, was 'a capsule of space and time where all the rules of racial engagement came into succinct and, at times, painful focus.' He goes on to document the nearly limitless humiliation porters underwent every day—so much so, he writes, that they learned to don a mask at work that could be removed when their shift was done, to maintain their dignity by assuming a countenance that was not their own. Exposed to virulent racism in 'one of the most thoroughly segregated workplaces in America,' they became critical sparks in the civil-rights movement. On the other hand, porters led a more cosmopolitan and (relatively) privileged life than most African-Americans, especially during the early years of the Pullman coach. They drew salaries and they traveled, garnering news and ideas from the four corners of the country, serving as agents of change within their communities as they brought home everything from jazz to seditious ideas. Their union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, was a unique and powerful institution . . . Tye makes the case for the porters as revolutionary elements within black society."—Kirkus Reviews

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  • Larry Tye

  • Larry Tye was a longtime reporter for The Boston Globe, where he won numerous awards. He now directs a Boston-based training program for medical journalists. A former Nieman Fellow at Harvard University, Tye is also the author of The Father of Spin and Home Lands.

  • Larry Tye