Judy Waters: Pullman Porters' movement reached the Berkshires


LUNENBURG — When Springfield's Clark Bryan wrote the "New Book of Berkshire" in 1890 he described multiple daily trains, with their "brussels" carpets, arriving in Pittsfield: "Have lunch in Pittsfield and be back in New York by 9 p.m." advised his travelogue, filled with vivid details and stories of North to South County. Absent though, was the story of those who helped power the course of civil rights by working as porters on those elegant trains.

George Pullman started the Pullman company in the mid-1800s, manufacturing luxury sleeper rail cars. He hired mostly African-Americans as porters, some of whom were freed slaves, known as Pullman Porters. New York Central lines and Boston & Albany railroad ran a Berkshire express, advertising Pullman cars. North Adams City Directories, 1908-1916 list names of several residents, with the occupations of "Pullman porter" or "porter with Pullman Co., " among them Thomas Dawkins (Upper Housatonic Valley African-American Heritage Trail).

Since 2004, Smithsonian.org and NPR.org have traced Pullman Porter history: men worked 20-hour shifts, or 400 hours per month, earning about $78 monthly. When traveling to Jim Crow states, porters often couldn't stay at hotels or eat in restaurants; they were expected to tolerate discrimination and not question inequities in pay. Sometimes they were segregated from white passengers on board.

Despite exploitation, porter work was considered respectable; porters gained recognition in their communities. Transportation was a game changer; Pullman porters were exposed to new places, new information. When traveling to the south, they informed residents of northern news.

A 2004 work, "Rising form the Rails" sheds light on Pullman porters as "agents of change" affecting social climate during Jim Crow.


As chronicled by AFL-CIO, by 1925, Pullman porters formed the Brotherhood of Sleeper Car Porters, the first recognized African-American labor union with the American Federation of Labor. The union was led by social and labor activist, A. Philip Randolph. Randolph's father, a minister, taught that "color was less important than a person's character and conduct." Randolph's mother, knowing of lynchings, cautioned her son about physical safety. Randolph had read W.E.B. Du Bois' "Souls of Black Folk" and written a letter to Du Bois. Philip Randolph became convinced that he should dedicate himself to social equality.

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After a long-awaited victory, with Randolph's leadership, porters received a contract from Pullman Co. in 1937. Steady wages allowed porters to be among the first African-Americans to reach the middle class, buy homes, send children to college. Thurgood Marshall, African-American Supreme Court justice, was the son of a Pullman porter. In 2016 the Pullman Porter era came to a quiet close when the last known retiree passed away at age 106.

Pullman porters who lived in North Adams may have been few in number, but their lives were part of a larger journey of justice, one of many starts and stops. That journey continues today as Americans confront a complex racial past. "Justice is never given, said labor leader Philip Randolph, "it is exacted and the struggle must be continuous; for freedom is never a final fact, but a continuing evolving process..."; Randolph had been called the "grandfather of civil rights."     

Looking around the Berkshires, rail tracks and bridges reveal a history that may have encompassed inequality, but also prosperity and opportunity. In 2019, a need grows around inequities in public transit in western and rural Mass (information on an east-west rail study is available at mass.gov)

If east-west, state rail service emerges in Massachusetts (westbound Amtrak arrives in Pittsfield at 4:30 p.m.once daily) perhaps it will be less about luxury trains and more about a better accessed, fair public transit system statewide.

Amtrak honored Philip Randolph and Pullman Porters in 2013. Today a restored Pullman car exhibit is part of Manchester, Vt.'s historical Hildene museum. Norman Rockwell's work, "Boy in Dining Car," depicts the Pullman era.

Trains sparked an integral part of Berkshire history; they symbolized tourism, industry and culture. That symbolism remains coupled with an important civil rights, fair labor and African-American journey, a rough ride to the "American Dream," one that eventually signaled a "continuing, evolving justice."

Judy Waters is a Pittsfield native and former Richmond resident.


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