They were known for their immaculate appearance and steadfast detail to doing a job well. They were comprised mostly of African-American men, initially former slaves, who were hired starting in the 1860s by industrialist George Pullman to staff the train sleeping cars he had invented.
Though the hours were long and the pay was a fraction of what they should have earned for the long hours and meticulous care they took of their passengers, working as a Pullman porter was a coveted position in Black society. Some historians mark their emergence as the catalyst for the rise of the Black middle class.
Part of the story of the Pullman porters is being presented through Jan. 3 at Washington’s Arena Stage in the musical Pullman Porter Blues. The play focuses on three generations of Pullman porters, Monroe Sykes, the patriarch who has worked on the trains for dozens of years; his son, Sylvester, who followed in his father’s footsteps as a young man and is conflicted about serving Whites; and Sylvester’s son, Cephas, who worked through his grandfather to join the workers’ ranks after dropping out of medical school, despite his father’s efforts to keep him off the train.
Pullman porters were pivotal in the struggle for freedom, according to historical accounts. They frequently delivered messages to southerners about efforts to improve Blacks’ condition, provided information about where jobs were available up North and even delivered copies of Black newspapers printed in the North to southern locales.
In the play, Sylester, played by veteran actor Cleavant Derricks, is involved in the effort to unionize the porters. In reality, activist A. Phillip Randolph organized the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in 1925. Years later, porters were granted rights with the passage of the Railway Labor Act. In 1937, the Pullman Company began to contract the porters, increased their pay and reduced the number of hours they worked.
Besides history, the play delves into the relationship between Black men and their children. Monroe, played by Larry Marshall, has sacrificed to make a better life for his son and grandson. His approach has been to do whatever is necessary to survive and maintain his job, including pretending to cowtow to the White passengers and supervisors on the train. The conflict that arises from the choices available to young people as they seek to find their way is told through the character of Cephas, played by Warner Miller.
A highlight of the play is the blues music that accents many of the scenes. The character of Sister Juba, played by actress E. Faye Butler, drew thunderous applause song after song at a recent performance. Also popular were the harmonica solos delivered by Lutie, a vagabond who has hitched a ride on the train, played by Emily Chilholm.
Pullman Porter Blues offers an important history lesson and good music. The play is scheduled to run through Jan. 6, 2013. Tickets, which range from $45 to $90, are still available at the Arena Stage sales office at 1101 Sixth Street SW, Washington D.C. or online at arenastag.org or by phone at 202-488-3300.