Monday, January 26, 2004

His name's not George (unless it really is)

Although it is a bit off this blog's stated purpose, I have published earlier (here and here) on the joy of transcontinental travel by Amtrak sleeping car.

Sometimes I think of what were the glory days of train travel, when the Pullman Company owned the sleeping cars (leasing them to railroads) and hired the attendants -- "porters," as they were called then -- freed black slaves at first, in the latter part of the 19th century.

But the relationship between the porters and the company was far from simplistic. By 1925, the Pullman Company was the largest single employer of blacks in the nation, and the company's involvement in communities as a good corporate citizen, especially its contributions to black churches, had bought it considerable goodwill among influential black leaders, particularly the ministers in the big churches in large cities. Well-placed advertisements in black newspapers helped as well. Recipients of the company's largess were loath to call for organized opposition to their benefactor.

They were paid less than white railway workers, of course, and they not only had to serve but to be subservient as well. Hence, in the 1920s, they struggled to unionize as the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, a "craft union" that would eventually, in the 1930s, become part of the American Federation of Labor.

For that story, you might look for a made-for-television (Showtime channel) movie, "10,000 Black Men Named George," starring Andr´┐Ż Braugher as organizer Philip Randolph and Mario Van Peebles as one of his associates. Charles S. Dutton's character helps earn the film an "R" rating. Sure, it's a TV movie and it's a little two-dimensional and cleaned up, but how many such movies on labor history are there?

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