BIPOC Voices, History & Now, Travel

Learn about the Pullman Porters’ impact on Train life for Black travelers

Life in the 1920s was different.

words by: Natasha Marsh
Aug 2, 2022

I recently traveled via train during my trip to Italy. I went from Bologna to Florence, then from Florence to Rome, and finally, Rome to Milan. As my fascination grew from the city streets and rolling hills throughout Tuscany, my gaze started to focus on my fellow passengers on the train. People who were in couples, families, and solo travelers, opting for the train as opposed to any other form of transportation. It was lovely to see, especially since on the East Coast, I’m accustomed to taking the subway, a plane, or bus to other states — never a train. I saw people dressed in their best outfits and others in athleisure with large backpacking backpacks.


I saw a ton of white Europeans, Australian and Asian travelers on the coaches, but could count on one hand the amount of Black travelers. I have been fortunate to travel to Europe multiple times, and while I understand that Black men and women aren’t in the majority of other countries’ populations, it still was surprising to see so little. Needless to say, the experience peaked my interest into researching train life for Black travelers. In my research, I kept coming across one name: The Pullman Porters.


When people typically think about historic and old train services that would take people across the world (like The Titanic did for ships), a few things come to mind: Luxury dining cars, spacious sleeping cabins, and posh seating. But often people don’t think about the staff. They were known as The Pullman Porters, and were the key players behind this iconic white-glove era.


This group of Black men were dedicated to their craft, creating an experience for white middle and upper class travelers with impeccable service. Including but not limited to numerous tasks like: Ironing clothes, shining shoes, taking care of baggage, and assisting with food. There were over 20,000 Black men working for the Pullman company, making it the largest single employer of African Americans in the 1920s.


The Pullman Porters were consistently discriminated against, called all kinds of racial slurs. They were also only paid if they worked 400 hours or 11,000 miles per month — think about it: Even an 80 hour work week (common in the finance industry) wouldn’t give you a monthly salary.


Porters would have to work 20 hour day shifts with very minimal sleep, just to wake up and do it all over again. And to make matters even worse, they had to pay for their food and uniforms — relying deeply on tips from customers. Eventually, fed up with their situation, The Pullman Porters created “The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters,” the nation’s first all-Black union and an influential institute for the Civil Rights Movement. Because of the work they did to fight for equal rights, they eventually got train conductors to accept Black travelers.


While trains are probably one of the most accessible means of transportation, we’re glad to have more ways to travel, like air. But if you’ve never flown and you’re nervous to, don’t be.