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A Pullman Porter Steps Out of Character

Jessie Carter

Publishing Information

    There is another side to "George," of which the traveling public knows little. Here is a true story of a Pullman Porter, with a hint of the struggle to organize the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.

    --The Editor

  1. SILENT Bumbry was a Pullman porter who operated a sleeping car out of the New York Central district when Richtmyer was Superintendent of the Pullman Company in that district. Bumbry was the prototype employee usually seen complementing the Pullman exhibits in metropolitan terminals-tall, of angular frame, high cheek-boned and the color of boiled coffee.

  2. The most complete account that any one of his fellow workers could have given about Bumbry was hearsay; for he walked from the subway, swinging in a deliberate long stride to the yards. No one knew him well; none had been to his home, many doubted that he had a home because they concluded that he must be a bachelor because he still wore the first suit of clothes he had ever purchased, or its pattern and ravels belied its chronological conception. They also guessed that Bumbry was from the South originally because he elongated his vowels and elided his consonants in speaking. When he left the yards, they watched the subway swallow him from whence he emerged placidly when he reported for his next regular run.

  3. The porters liked Silent, and they supposed that the officials liked him for they had never heard of a single insubordination, nor noted an infrequent absence due to a book suspension; nor had they ever seen his name on the board or in the order book. He was their most frequent personnel topic for discussion, but each admired, yea, coveted Bumbry's solitude so they endearingly named him, not without admiration, Silent Bumbry.

  4. The speculation about Bumbry increased when organization came to the Pullman porter group in the early twenties, for on one hand was Simmon's inside Employee Representation Plan, sponsored and maintained by the Company; on the other was Randolph's outside Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, a bona fide trade union affiliated with the American Federation of Labor.

  5. All about the Pullman quarters and "sign-out" windows fell subtle suspicion, thick as train smoke and silence as heavy as seasonal runs. He who had formerly been a comrade in endeavor, had he at any time said, "If you want to ride this train, vote annually under and for the Employee Representation Plan" was blackballed as a stool pigeon, Uncle Tom or a handkerchief head; but should he query "Service or Servitude?" he was proscripted to the ranks of the predamned as an ingrate, a radical, or agitator.

  6. Which side of the fence ? was the implied inflection in the most casual conversation, Which side of the fence?

  7. Behind the inflections were those less careful who openly rebelled, declaring loudly: "'Tis us who sell John Public, George Pullman. The sleeper is useless without the porter -we are the magic touch of labor which transforms any material into a saleable commodity. Fight or Be Slaves."

  8. The other group advocated, "Don't bite the hand that's feeding you." Or "Work for either the Brotherhood or the Pullman Company."

  9. Less silently, less subtly, the Pullman management overlords and underlords were firing over five hundred men for "monkeying" with outside union affiliation, firing them without recourse to hearing or firing them technically by suspending them until that day when they should come back whimpering, kneeling their way to tell the superintendent that they had seen the light at last, which pantomime would take place on the historically warped economic structure of race and bread . . . black man . . . fewer jobs . . . last hired, first fired ... black skin.... Fight or be slaves.... Employee Representation Plan ... John Brown's Body, or did John Brown live in the days of Pullman Cars . . . hunger is contagious and my family is mighty susceptible. . . . Simmons . . . job . . . bread . . . For Whom are you working? . . . violated seniority . . . preparatory time . . . Randolph . . . good porter . . . black skin, aw, what the hell!

  10. Silent's name was on the black board and in the order book when his train pulled into the yards from the West one golden autumn day and the porters looked knowingly at each other and shuddered. They spoke not a word to each other, but knew that the superintendent would at last ferret through Silent's coveted complacency. He would be, in no uncertain rhetorical questioning, asked for whom he was working.

  11. Order for Bumbry could mean nothing else, since he was adjudged too slow to be curt and too naive to be suspicious. The mystery around Bumbry grew more intricate as he took the subway uptown for the Superintendent's office, for although he had never been seen to vote for the Plan of Employee Representation, he had never been heard chanting that infectious quartette, "Fight or Be Slaves."

  12. When Bumbry reported to the Pullman Company's offices, the pale, fragile-appearing blonde switchboard operator in the tight yellow blouse asked him what he wanted.

  13. "Nothing," said Bumbry and he shrugged his shoulders."Who do you want a see?""Who me? No one.""Well, whatcha here for?""Mr. Richtmyer wants to see me.""Oh, well, sit down, Porter. Sit down and wait."

  14. Bumbry waited. He waited thirty-five minutes by the office clock on the exceedingly hard bench reserved impartially by the Company for its porters, whether faithful Company men or radical union agitators. Then she told him, "You can go in now."

  15. Silently, awkwardly, Bumbry entered the Superintendent's office, deferentially twisting his misshapen hat and walking on tiptoe lest he interrupt the Superintendent who seemed to be busy with the scattered diagrams on his mahogany desk. After a few fog-heavy seconds Richtmyer looked up from the technical diagrams, acknowledged Silent's presence with a curt nod, then returned his eyes to the diagrams before him and began to mumble the copyrighted, periodically aired, safety lecture phrases about The Pullman Family.

  16. "You have been a good porter, Bumbry, considered by the management as one of the most reliable and congenial members of the Pullman Family in this district. As you know, there are more Negroes in The Pullman Service than in any other unit of industry in this chosen land, the United States of America; and truly it is a land of unexplored wealth and resource. This Company took your forefathers directly from slavery, illiterate and untaught, and has given them work, and the means wherewith to buy food, clothing and excellent shelter. It, The Company, is training this select group of workers into a school of thought that will make your children worthy of citizenship in the greatest republic on earth. And with what shall you repay the Pullman Company? Service is not enough. There must be loyalty."

  17. As Richtmyer talked, his voice rising chromatically in a faulty crescendo, Bumbry punctured the monologue with a shift of the already battered hat in his angular hands. When he reached the psychological volume and pitch, Richtmyer yelled:

  18. "Porter, are you a member of this Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters ?" Bumbry shifted, then waited for the echo to die down in the silver pitcher marked Pullman on the table beside the massive, mahogany desk. Then he whispered in a half halting legato, a pitchless nasal tone:

  19. "Mr. Richtmyer, Sir, do you belong to the Roman Catholic Church ? The Masons ? The Child Welfare Society, The Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, the Book of the Month Club, the Animal-"

  20. "Porter, you're out of place and insubordinate. Have you forgotten that I am district superintendent of the Pullman Company? Why --why it's none of your business just what I belong to !"

  21. "No sir, Mr. Richtmyer, I ain't forgot what you are, but your answer is exactly the same one I was going to give to the question you put to me ! "

  22. "What answer?"

  23. "That it ain't your business what I belong to, neither."

  24. Bumbry turned to leave. He walked slowly as if respectful of the high office; but the superintendent would not accept defeat at the hands of a dark menial so easily. He jumped to his feet and yelled in a voice like a trumpet:

  25. "Now, Porter, I want you to be careful, do you understand !"

  26. Bumbry turned, knowing that the questioning was not yet over, but fully aware that everything he uttered would be used against him. He then spoke in a voice more moderately thin than his previous one, shaking his head slowly from side to side:

  27. "Mr. Superintendent of the Pullman Company, I got nothing to be careful for. I own enough houses in Brooklyn."

  28. Bumbry quietly opened the office door and walked evenly through the main office, thinking back to those days in the oppressive South when some white folks had offered to buy his rock-strewn, infertile farm because they had discovered on it the graves of their ancestors, and they weren't particular about having niggers owning their flesh and blood. He thought of the then fabulous sum of money they had paid for their contempt of dark skin, then turned his thoughts to the snug row of houses in Brooklyn. Inwardly, he laughed at the impudence of the Superintendent who had pried in vain, and as he passed the mourner's bench with the half anxious, half defiant porters waiting to be admitted to the office, he felt inside his pocket and caressed with his long, angular fingers the membership card of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.