Segments in this Video

Pullman Porters: America's First Black Trade Union (02:42)


The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters meets in Washington, D.C. in 1980. They represent more than a century of African-American history from slavery to the civil rights movement.

Hotels on Wheels (01:43)

Film narrator Rosina Tucker was born in 1881 in Washington, D.C. and married a Pullman Porter. George Pullman started the luxury sleeping car company after the Civil War; they were staffed by former slaves in the early days.

Pullman Porter: A Symbol of Service (01:45)

Sleeping car staff carried baggage, served food and waited on passengers night and day. Paid a small salary; they relied on tips to make a living. In the 1920s, Pullman employed more black workers than any other U.S. company.

First Class During the Age of Steam (02:29)

During the train travel era, wealthier passengers rode in Pullman cars. A retired Porter recalls preparing meals from scratch. He walks us through the dining and parlor cars, demonstrating service techniques.

Pullman Porters: Beyond Service Duties (01:28)

In addition to serving passengers, Sleeping Car staff members acted as tour guides. Retirees recall providing emotional support and diplomacy to keep people in a pleasant mood over long journeys.

Secrets of the Trade (03:13)

Retired Pullman Porters demonstrate how they prepared beds in luxury sleeping cars.

A Respected Position (02:34)

Pullman Porters coming from small towns traveled the U.S., gaining experience that elevated their status back home. We see scenes from the 1933 film "The Emperor Jones" with Paul Robeson.

Brotherhood Culture (02:55)

Working long hours on the road, Pullman Porters formed a fraternity. They stayed in company quarters on layovers, playing cards and sharing stories. A retiree recalls serving Ella Fitzgerald—mistaking her for a maid.

Gracious Hosts Onboard, Black Men Off Board (01:21)

Pullman Porters became friends and confidants of white passengers—but when the train arrived at its destination, they were relegated to second class citizenry.

Service Uniforms or Labor Overalls (02:34)

A Pullman Porter retiree regrets leaving college to serve train passengers. In the 1920s, educated African-American men had few career options; the Pullman company exploited the situation and paid overqualified employees low wages.

Miles of Smiles (04:31)

Pullman Porters suffered unfair working conditions and had no job security. Retirees share stories of racial discrimination from white passengers—they coped by rising above the situation.

Organizing Pullman Porters (02:09)

Socialist A. Phillip Randolph wanted to unionize black workers—unheard of at a time when blacks weren't allowed to join most white unions. 500 employees met in Harlem in 1925; founding the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.

Early Sleeping Car Union Days (02:07)

The Pullman Company started a "employee representation plan" to compete with the Porter's union. Rosina Tucker helped the Brotherhood organize by secretly distributing information and collecting dues.

Challenges of Organizing the Sleeping Car Brotherhood (03:29)

Rosina Tucker and a retired Pullman Porter recall tactics they used to keep union meetings secret from the company. West Coast representative Mr. Dellums shares his experience being fired for union activities.

"Fight or be Slaves" (01:01)

Although their jobs were threatened, the Sleeping Car Porters' union fought for fair working conditions and gradually gained AFL and federal support. Leader A. Phillip Randolph's civil rights ideas were ahead of his time.

A Small Step Towards Justice (01:40)

When Rosina Tucker's husband was removed from his Pullman Porter duties, she went to his superintendent demanding his reinstatement. The boss complied; demonstrating the Brotherhood union's growing strength.

A Civil Rights and Labor Victory (01:37)

In 1937, after a twelve year battle; the Pullman Company signed the first ever agreement between a large American corporation and a union of black workers. We hear a recording of A. Phillip Randolph addressing a Sleeping Car Porter convention.

Dedication and Integrity (02:26)

Sleeping Car Brotherhood representative Mr. Dellums recalls a Pullman executive asking how the black union won the fight against the powerful corporation. In a PR move they sent a blank check to A. Phillip Randolph, who didn't take the bait.

"Marching Together" (01:43)

Pullman Porter widow Rosina Tucker plays a song she wrote in 1939 in support of the first black union. Sleeping Car Porters became community leaders, sent their children to college and laid the foundation for the Civil Rights Movement.

Labor and Civil Rights Movements Converge (00:50)

The Sleeping Car Porter Union broke the AFL’s racial barriers. Leader A. Phillip Randolph pressured Roosevelt to establish the Fair Labor Commission in 1941—and later organized the 1963 March on Washington.

Porters' Civil Rights Involvement (04:11)

Although Dr. King is associated with the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Pullman Porter E.D. Nixon organized it. He drew inspiration from black union organizer A. Phillip Randolph; we hear his story.

Men, First and Foremost (02:38)

The Pullman Porters took on a service role out of necessity, but they never lost their self-respect. A retiree shares a story of an honest interaction with a passenger.

Ridiculed in Popular Culture (01:58)

We see footage from early films depicting Pullman Porters in disrespectful ways. Retirees discuss how they maintained their dignity on the job.

End of the Pullman Porter Era (01:40)

In 1969 the Pullman Company went out of business; the Sleeping Car Brotherhood later merged with the larger Railway and Airline Clerk Union. We hear an excerpt from a Langston Hughes poem honoring their accomplishments.

"Artists, Clowns and Gentlemen" (01:51)

Retired members of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters Union share memories and reflect on their former careers.

Credits: Miles of Smiles, Years of Struggle (02:18)

Credits: Miles of Smiles, Years of Struggle

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Miles of Smiles, Years of Struggle

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In telling the story of the organizing of the first black trade union—The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters—this program provides an account of African-American working life between the Civil War and World War II. Narrator Rosina Tucker, a 100-year-old union organizer and porter’s widow, describes how after a long struggle led by A. Philip Randolph, the porters won the first contract ever negotiated with black workers. The film describes the harsh discrimination which lay behind the porters’ smiling service and reveals a key source of the Civil Rights movement. (58 minutes)

Length: 60 minutes

Item#: BVL49728

Copyright date: ©1989

Closed Captioned

Reviews & Awards

“One hundred years of history is spanned in an enlightening portrait of admirable dignity.”  —The New York Times

 “A moving account of the Pullman porters’ remarkable (and largely untold) history.”  —The Washington Post

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