Rising from the Rails

Pullman Porters and the Making of the Black Middle Class

Larry Tye

Holt Paperbacks

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.


Read an Excerpt

1Out of Bondage, All Aboard 
HE WAS A black man in a white jacket and sable hat. Having stepped out of the cotton fields barely two years before, he now was stepping onto one of the locomotives that had long symbolized freedom to slavehands across America. He lit candles that illuminated the passenger carriage, stoked the pot-bellied Baker Heater, and turned down hinged berths that magically transformed the day coach into an overnight compartment. He was part chambermaid, part valet, shining shoes, nursing hangovers, tempering tempers, and performing other


Praise for Rising from the Rails

“This book brings to life the stirring story of the civil rights legacy of A. Phillip Randolph and the Pullman porters, which is an inspiration to those of us following in their footsteps. Kudos to Larry Tye for giving us this wonderfully readable, and incredibly important, history.”
--Congressman Jesse L. Jackson, Jr.

“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 nation-wide, 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 like 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

"This book does a magnificent job in relating how a relatively small group of struggling workers shaped not only the African-American community but all of the United States. The story of the Pullman porter is no less important than any other struggle for civil rights in the American labor movement." –James P. Hoffa, General President, International Brotherhood of Teamsters

“Larry Tye's Rising from the Rails recreates an important chapter in the history of black people in this country: the hard earned passage of thousands of blacks into the middle class. By examining the progress of the Pullman porter - from the step and fetch it caricature to pensioned union member - Tye captures one of black people's many struggles to achieve equality. This is la story all Americans should know.” –Vernon E. Jordan, Jr., Senior Managing Director at Lazard LLC and author of Vernon Can Read!: A Memoir

"Rising from the Rails chronicles the pioneering role the Pullman porters and their leader, A. Philip Randolph, played in building America's union movement. This vividly told story should be required reading for those who care about labor history, race history, and US history." –John J. Sweeney, President, AFL-CIO

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

"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."
--The San Francisco Chronicle

"[Tye's] analysis of class perceptions and race relations reverberates to the current day."

"[A] highly readable business history at one end and labor history at the other... entertaining detail abounds... So does informing detail."
--Publisher's Weekly

"Tye's work is worth the ride for its comprehensive survey of a topic that deserves much attention."
--Library Journal

Reviews from Goodreads



  • Larry Tye

  • A longtime journalist for The Boston Globe, Larry Tye has won numerous awards for his work. A former Nieman Fellow at Harvard University, he is the author of The Father of Spin (0-8050-6789-2) and Home Lands (0-8050-6591-1). He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.






    Available Formats and Book Details

    Rising from the Rails

    Pullman Porters and the Making of the Black Middle Class

    Larry Tye




    Holt Paperbacks