Pullman Porter Alfred Macmillian. Taken by Jack Delano, 1942. Library of Congress.

May I Take Your Luggage?

Crossing borders

George Pullman was a man who knew what he wanted out of his business ventures. After amassing his riches in Colorado during the gold rush, selling tools and necessities to people in search of gold, he eventually made his way back to Chicago. There he would erect assembly shops and along side it a town that hosted all the needs and some of the wants of his employees. He wished in his ventures to attract the best artisans he could find to create his train cars, but he was unsatisfied with only construction and leasing of his luxury sleeping cars. He needed to ensure that not only the tapestry was thick and lush or that the wood the car was made from was carved beautifully, but also that the service provided was high quality as well.

In come the Porters.

The Pullman Company hired Black men to provide this service, becoming one of the few companies that would hire and pay them. These men were guaranteed to know how best to serve the passengers on Pullman cars, as they have the experience and training that came as a consequence of their enslavement. For some time, they were the only ones. They were eventually joined by Filipinos and when the Pullman Company decided to expand south of the Mexico-U.S. border: Mexican Nationals.

After the panic of 1891, Pullman employees who lived in Pullman’s company town experienced wage cuts and no decrease in their rent prices. This caused stress among workers that now faced struggles in feeding their families. Eventually, as Pullman refused to negotiate wages or rent, the American Rail Union members rallied all Pullman Company employees into a strike. Although the strike lasted for months it was eventually busted and employees went back to work with no changes. It’s believed the strike could have gained some successes if the A.R.U. had— when the time came— voted for unity and inclusion of the primarily Black porters.  Biases prevailed, even among Black and Filipino porters who saw each other as a threat to their standings within the company.

Pullman Porter making a bed, Jack Delano 1942. Library of Congress.

The same cannot be said about Mexican Porters. When Mexican National rail workers went on strike for better working conditions in the early 1900s, they presented a united front by including everyone from the conductor to the cooks and porters onboard the train. They were backed by their department of labor. Their success in negotiations inspired Black and Filipino Porter unions to look past any animosities and join to present a united front.

There is not much yet in the halls of the Pullman National Historic Site about the struggles and successes of the Mexican Nationals who worked for and with the Pullman Company. As summer starts in full swing, I will be focusing a portion of my time here at Pullman to collect information on the Mexican Porters and help in the development of a temporary exhibit honoring the Mexican Nationals who’s actions opened the way for American Porters to win better working conditions.

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