The Pullman Porter: "World's Most Perfect Servant" Or Symbol of Racial Oppression?

Jan 15, 2012

Bellman, concierge, housekeeper, valet:  If the Pullman porter’s job was complex, his place in the American consciousness is even harder to pin down. 

Was he “the world’s most perfect servant,” as Pullman’s advertising boasted, or a symbol of racial oppression?  Icon of gracious travel, or underpaid victim? And what of his contributions to the modern civil rights movement? 

Monday on Up to Date, we mark the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday with a conversation with Peter Hansen, editor of Railroad History about how more than 40 years after the Pullman Company went out of business, attitudes about its frontline employees reflect our continued ambivalence.

Peter A. Hansen is the editor of Railroad History, the scholarly journal of the Railway & Locomotive Historical Society, and he is also a correspondent for Trains, an industry publication.  He is a contributor to the Encyclopedia of North American Railroads, published by Indiana University Press, and guest curator to several historical museums nationwide.  He is also the co-curator of a Jim Crow coach for the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African-American History.