The Pullman Porter Blues is a fascinating theatrical production. It tells several stories. The story is written by Cheryl West and directed by Chuck Smith and has just been extended to October 27 at The Goodman Theater. The most important story for me was it is a play about how three generations of black males cope with racism as Pullman Porters. Their ages ranged from 17 to 70 years old.
The play was an historical eye opener for me. I learned a lot about a history that was not so long ago. My mother and a friend, Linda went to the play. Inadvertently my mother gave us a real history lesson. The Pullman Porters were perfect servants. The play takes place in the year of 1937. The Pullman Porters wages were low; their work was demanding and hard. But they had a job. They worked on average 100 hours a week with little sleep. They served food, shined shoes, carried luggage and took care of every whim the luxury train traveler had. They dressed perfectly and with pride. The dark uniforms were perfectly pressed and fitted. Their motton was “on the job every second.” What a work ethic. When they changed into their white jackets for the dining room they were starched and they too were perfect. They shinned the train excessively. The older porter took pride in his job and knew how to manipulate and manage the passengers and his white boss. He lived well on his tips. George Pullman owned the luxury train line and it was custom in that day to call the porter by the name of “George.” In slavery, if you didn’t know the slave’s name, you simply called him by his master’s name. Many of the porters answered to George.
The star of the afternoon . . .
They play provoked my mother’s sensibility and memory. She was the star of the afternoon for me. She knew things that I had never heard her talk about. She remembered where A. Phillip Randolph’s office, right next to the Wabash Y on 39th street before it moved to South Parkway (now King drive). The second generation of the play’s Pullman porter’s was a member of the Randolph movement to organize the porters into what would become the first union Black people in America were involved in. As a result of the union, their wages increased and 100 working hours became 60. She told us about the Porters being great guys, they were gentlemen, with money in their pockets, sharp dressers, and they wore pocket watches usually on and off the train. It is considered, that the Pullman Porters were the first entry into the Black middle class.
After seeing the play I became fascinated by the porters to discover the housing that Mr. Pullman built for the porters in the Pullman community and to learn that the porters stayed at the YMCA for lodging as they traveled because they could not stay in hotels.
One of the scenes in the play was the night Joe Louis fought and won on June 22, 1937. The black men on the trained listened to the fight on the radio and roared with glee when Joe Louis knocked out his opponent and became the heavy weight champion of the world.
During intermission, I casually asked my mother did she remember that night. And right there in the theater she gave us and those around us a real and rare history lesson. Of course, I remember that night. She said when Joe fought Black America stopped. You came home from work early; you adjusted your schedule to be glued to the radio. She told Linda and I about the time my father took her to the fight. She went to the washroom to powder her nose and when she came back to be seated, my father said, let’s go the fight is over. She thought he was kidding. Joe won. She was stunned because she missed it and said she never went to the fight again, because Joe often won in the first round. She said, when Joe won it was party time. Black folk everywhere danced, sang and partied at home and in the streets. He was the champion and Black America cheered no matter what.
When intermission was over, we went back to the play. But I was thinking. This was a history not so long ago. I began to understand the pride of older black men. My mother commented that when they went to the fights they were dressed. Men wore suits, ties and hats. Women wore dresses, gloves and hats. There was no casual wear. There was pride, because Joe was fighting. When Joe won, we won.
I told a couple of male friends who are particularly sharp dressers about the play. And as I was talking I realized something. One friend’s father was a Pullman porter and the other’s grandfather was a Pullman porter. The dressing tradition carried directly to them. I have never seen either of these gentlemen with unshined shoes, a crooked tie or uncreased pants. The conversation carried, and I realized their male parentage taught them how to dress perfectly. I also remembered my father always had a pocket watch.
The Pullman porter was more than a job; it carried a culture and lifestyle into Black America from attire to union organizing. Chicago has always been in the forefront of Black America, from the labor movement , to politics to business The play is rich and the conversation it stimulates is even richer.