August 09, 2004 12:00 PM

Pullman Porters and the Making of the Black Middle Class
By Larry Tye


Ever made a bed aboard a moving train? In the century before the civil rights movement, that and other menial chores were performed by African-American men, usually Southerners, hired by the Pullman Company to serve white passengers in sleeper cars. Deferential to customers yet managing, as one ex-porter told Tye, to “look, listen and learn,” the men organized in 1925 to form the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters—the first black union admitted into the powerful American Federation of Labor. Thorough yet never dull, Tye, a longtime reporter for The Boston Globe, casts his subjects with honor and dignity. He weaves their stories together with those of paternalistic mogul George Pullman and black union activist A. Philip Randolph, fleshing out the history of a labor movement that set the stage for 1963’s March on Washington.

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