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Railroad porters praised for work ethic, vital role
Friday, 24 November 2023 18:00
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SALUDA — Guest speaker Raymond “Bo” Brown addressed “Remembering the Railroad Porters and Their Vital Role” in a passion-filled, hour-long presentation that was part of the monthly Saluda Train Tales series on Nov. 10 at the town’s Historic Depot.

About 50 people attended. 

Brown — the national vice president of the Railroadiana Collectors Association Inc. -— is an avid railroad memorabilia collector, having started collecting his railroad antiques when he was just 12 years old.

His grandfather, who worked for Southern Railway for 40-plus years, gave Brown a Southern “shorty” lantern, a long-neck oiler and a silver Southern thermos. That began a lifetime pursuit of collecting Southern Railway memorabilia.

“When not on the trail of another relic, he spends much of his time helping families in his community as the owner of The Howze Mortuary in Travelers Rest (S.C.),” an event promotion noted.

Also, Brown is on the advisory board of the Bank of Travelers Rest and serves as the vice president of the Carolina Heritage Railroad Association — and he works with his local Historical Association.

Mike Reeves, chair of the Saluda Historic Depot & Museum, welcomed everyone to the program. “We are a 501(c)(3)... Our goal is to preserve and present the history of the raiload coming to Western North Carolina and its impact on Western North Carolina.”

In a brief followup telephone interview with the Daily Planet on Nov 19, Reeves noted that “the Saluda Grade was the connector from the ports of Charleston, South Carolina, to the Ohio River Valley.” 

(The Saluda Grade, the steepest standard-gauge mainline railway grade in the United States, was a route “for the Asheville and Spartanburg Railroad to ascend the Blue Ridge front; the area where the rolling hills of the Piedmont end at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains,” Wikipedia noted. The Saluda Grade was taken out of service in December 2001 for economic reasons.) 

At the Nov. 10 meeting, Reeves told the crowd, “As a nonprofit, everything we do is free.” The group finances its projects and programs through an annual golf tournament, memberships, fundraisers and donations.  

Next, Mary Reeves, the group’s program chair and Reeves’ wife, introduced Brown, noting that “he (Brown) has ‘gifted’ us over the years... He has loaned us many materials” over the years — mainly his Southern Railway dinnerware.  

In reference to the Railroadiana Collectors Association Inc., of which Brown is among the top leaders, Mary Reeves said the group’s quarterly magazine “is the best forty-two dollars (for a year’s subscription) you can spend” to learn what is available for sale in the world of railroad memorabilia. 

“I’m going to leave it here, but you can’t take it with you,” she said. “He (Brown) is an expert in railroad memorabilia.”

Brown, whose wife Brenda was in the audience (in the front row), began his address by prompting some chuckles from the crowd when he quipped, “I’ll tell you — I’m a junk collector!”

More specifically (and more seriously), he added, “I’ve been actively collecting railroad memorabilia since age 12.”

In his memorabilia collection effort, Brown noted, “The biggest pleasure has been dealing with the people in railroading ... When it comes to the Southern Railway, only, I’m an expert in silverware ... Also, in railroad (memorabilia) collecting, from day one, I’ve been drawn to railroad portering...

“This program (on Nov. 10) is about porters, in general, and the Pullman Company, specifically... So I’ll get on with the railroad program.”

Brown then presented a slide show titled “Remembering the Railroad Porter.” As he reviewed his slides, he said, “Railroad porters were always overworked. They were always underpaid. They were basically faces without names… They were required to do anything....”

He added that it all started in 1859, when “George Pullman bought two old coaches from the Chicago, Alton & St. Louis Railroad. He wanted to bring the level of sleeping cars ‘up.’ He wanted the rich to have what they were used to. He wanted the middle-class to have a taste of the best...

“In 1862, Pullman took his dream nationally and started the Pullman Company... So, in 1867, just two years after the Civil War (ended), George Pullman began hiring only African-American men. The reason he wanted black men was because they were considered — by him — the ‘perfect servants,’” Brown said. 


In Pullman’s analysis, Brown said, “Prior to the Civil War, they were used to waiting on white men. They were good at it. Many of these men were former slaves. He (Pullman) also preferred those with the darkest of skins...

“Note the white jackets with black caps, and a dark face — you didn’t see the face. He considered them (the blackest of black men) the ‘perfect porter.’

“They (all of the porters) were called ‘George’ —  after George Pullman. During the days of slaves, they took their master’s names. He (Pullman) didn’t promote the use of ‘George” (as the proper address to his company’s porters)  — the riding public did. So they (the Pullman porters) dealt with racism on a regular basis... “

Whats more, Brown noted, “Pullman porters were required to smile all of the time...

“These men were extremely proud of what they were doing. Even with all of the racism, they loved their jobs. These guys were amazing...”

However, Brown added with a note of sadness, “Pullman thought of (his company’s) porters as ‘just another piece of equipment...’

“By the 1920s, the Pullman Company, alone, employed 12,000 black porters. It was a great job for them because they could make more there than in the fields.”

As the data shows, Brown asserted, “The black porters (employed by Pullman) created the black middle-class.”

Brown then asked, rhetorically, “What was the daily life of a railroad porter like?” 

In answering his own question, he said, “They were normally the first railroad personnel you would see when you boarded the train — and the last person you would normally see when you reached your destination... They were always there with a smile — and that was a requirement.

“They were always picking up after the passengers. They always kept everything neat. They were constantly dusting and cleaning. They were always at each passenger’s beck and call — (even) bringing you water late at night… And they were the personal alarm clock at early light….”

Ultimately, he said, the porters “took care of each passenger — and would carry your baggage with a constant smile.. They would sing a song or two… Again, anything the passengers wanted...

To that end, Brown noted, they even were “babysitting your children,” when needed.

“I mean, these guys had their hands full because for each (passenger) car, there was one porter. If it was full, you had 48 people you had to wait on... And doing all of this with very little rest….”

At that point, Brown asked, rhetorically, “And do you remember the Jim Crowe laws?”

(“In practice, Jim Crow laws mandated racial segregation in all public facilities in the states of the former Confederate States of America and in some others, beginning in the 1870s,” Wikipedia stated.)

In answering his own question, Brown said, “When you crossed the Mason-Dixon line, blacks and whites couldn’t ride — or eat — together. So they had colored and white coaches... In the South, they (the porters) worked the entire train, but could only relax and eat in certain (non-white) places.

(The “Mason-Dixon Line (was) originally the boundary between Maryland and Pennsylvania in the United States. In the pre-Civil War period it was regarded, together with the Ohio River, as the dividing line between slave states south of it, and free-soil states north of it,” according to

"These guys (the Pullman porters), they did anything to keep their jobs... because their jobs were going to change their families’ lives” for the better — and significantly. “No matter what, they always had those smiles on their faces.

“Twenty-hour days were a way of life” for the porters... On the first night of a trip, they could sleep three hours — the rest of the trip, they had to be awake...

“And the pay, well, they’d work 400 hours a month or 11,000 miles,” which would equate to 80 hours per week. “and your pay for this was $810 per year. In today’s money that is $3.45 per hour.”

Brown asked, rhetorically, “Does that remind you of anybody in today’s society?”

In answer, he said, “Wait staff — they work on a similar scale (to that of Pullman porters), with tips being a major part of their financial compensation.

‘Out of their salary, they (the porters) had to buy their own uniforms, their own shoe-shine supplies, pay for their lodging between stops —  this alone cost them about $33.50 per month,” Brown said.

To offset its inadequate pay of its porters, Brown said that “the railroad pushed tipping. The biggest way they made money on tips was shining shoes. In fact, it was built into their pay structure. Because of this, the porters basically had to solicit tips, if they wanted to make a decent living.Their goal was to have their tip amount (at least) equal their pay.

“They were the worst-paid employees within the railroad, but they were envied in the black community because they made more than other blacks. They were the backbone for establishing a black middleclass” in the United States, he noted.

With a smile, Brown then stated that the “one passenger that porters always hoped they got was… (entertainer) Jackie Gleason, who rode the train about everwhere he went. Every porter who worked with him — he (Gleason) would give them a $100 tip. Gleason (also) always learned every porter’s name,” as opposed to just calling them all “George” — and that respect paid to them was much-appreciated by the porters.

Brown added, “Eventually, they came out with these cards with porter’s names on them to get them (the traveling public) to call them (the porters) by their real names.”

Ironically, he said that, “It turned out that about 15 percent of the Pullman porters were named George!”

In 1925, after 50 years under the same work and compensation system, “positive change was coming for the porters in the way of A. Phillip Randolph,” Brown said. “He (Randolph) was known as an activist — and he didn’t like the way the porters were treated. The railroads were highly unionized — except for the porters. So he established the union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters...

“In 1937, 12 years later, Pullman finally recognized the porters’” efforts. “They did increase their wages and cut their hours in half. In a sense, they (the porters) got a raise, but they also got a raise on top of that.... Anyone black (and working in the railroad business), basically, was welcomed into that union.”

Brown also praised Edgar Nixon, a porter, who, along with the sleeping car porters, was “quite instrumental with the civil rights movement — because they had their own system for crisscrossing the country...They were very active in civil rights. 

“Edgar Nixon worked out of Montgomery, Ala,, and he was very active in the civil rights movement. But George Pullman didn’t care about civil rights, so he (Nixon) also had to work... It was Edgar Nixon who got Martin Luther King Jr. into the civil rights movement....”

After a pause, Brown asserted, “I love these guys because of their work ethic and their pride. They took their job seriously. They were proud of it... I hated the way they were treated....”

In reviewing pictures of some of the porters from years ago in a slide show presentation, Brown noted that “these guys (the porters) are ‘dressed to the heels.’ They’re proud of what they’re doing.”

In contrast, showing a slovenly dressed white conductor, flanked by stylishly clad black porters, Brown triggered laughter from the crown when he opined, “The conductor looks like he just rolled out of bed!”

In singling out another famous porter in history, Brown said that “J.W. Mays (circa 1894) served then-President William McKinley in his sleeping car, and then went on and served at the White House for four decades,” serving every succeeding president.

He reiterated, “The porters, always, were dignified and, always, polished... The passengers loved these guys.” 

Brown added, “By the late ‘60s, the Pullman porters were allowed to take tickets and do other things — a big difference in what they were allowed to do and how they did their jobs, I believe.”

Next, he spoke about the “Redcap porters (who) were always black.” (A redcap loads cargo and helps passengers get their belongings, such as baggage, onto a train. In contrast, a Pullman porter assists the passengers once they are on the train.)

Speaking broadly, Brown said, “The railroad porter was part maid, shoeshine boy, nurse, babysitter and peacekeeper... If someone stole something, the porter had to pay for it. So he also had to police the train” to curtail theft.

“In the beginning, they were considered the ‘perfect servants’ and, in the end, they were some of the most-admired men on the train… I know this because I’ve talked to Pullman porters....

“It was ingrained in them to be the best they could be... I don’t want to make anybody mad, but a lot of conductors (who all were white and higher paid) were a bunch of drunks... These guys (the porters) weren’t drunks. They took care of their passengers.”

He reiterated, “Again, it’s the people of the railroad that I love...”

In his memorabilia collection, Brown noted, “We have many uniforms, but the majority are Pullman porter uniforms....”

He added, “My favorite railroad book is “Rising From the Rails.”

In the Pullman railroad hierarchy, he lamented, all of the badges --— with the exception of one — were silver,” for which the porters could qualify. “One was gold — (only) for conductors.”

“The pay structure for these guys (the porters) — it wasn’t a good pay structure... The redcap porters were paid strictly from tips.”

As for the headgear that the redcaps wore, Brown said, “When the (black) hat (of a regular porter) got to where it wasn’t nice enough — they would give the caps to redcaps — and paint them red.”

He then held up a redcap, noting enthusiastically, “That’s one of my prizes!”

During a 15-minute question-and-answer session that followed his presentation, an unidentified man noted that it is “getting hard to find” railroad antiques” and asked, “What is the future of collecting railroad memorabilia?” 

“Last year, we did a survey of our members and over 80 percent are over 68 years old,” Brown replied. “Many of our collectors collect via cellphones... Railroad lanterns will sell $10,000 or $15,000 each.”

He added, “The hunt is everything.”

Brown then triggered laughter from the crowd when he quipped, “I’ve got a friend who says, ‘This is our crack (cocaine)!’”

Another unidentified man asked, “Who polishes brass?”

“I polish silver, but brass is too hard to polish,” Brown answered, succinctly.

Another man asked, “Are past issues (of the Railroadiana publication) available on-line?”

“If you happen to be a member, every issue since 1971 is available online,” Brown answered.

Further, he said, “For many years, I’ve had friends on the coast of South Carolina and they lived in a shack, basically, and once a year we’d have a railroad dinner, bringing china and tablecloths… We’d pick a menu every year and we’d cook that menu. We’d cook all day long and we would eat all night long. And all of your scraps — we’d throw out to the alligators. It would be cooked the way the railroad cooked it — and served the way the railroad served it.”

An unidentified man stated, “In Jonesville, Tennessee, they have a biannual meal, where you eat in a static dining car. There were folks from five states at our meal. They were ‘turning meals’ as fast as they could. Now, if we had our dining car on the track….”

Brown replied, “On a dining car, there were four seats” at table. “You’re going to sit at that table with someone you don’t know.” — and he said that is a delightful experience.

As the Q&A session concluded, Brown smiled as the crowd applauded — with some cheering enthusiastically — his address.

Afterward, Mike Reeves, chair of the Saluda Historic Depot & Museum, noted that his group will be offering (as a fundraiser) a $150-a-plate meal — open to the public and cooked and served the way it would have been done on a Southern Railway dining car in the past — on April 24, 2024, at a time to be announced.

The meal will be served at the Orchard Inn (a former inn for railroad engineers and conductors), less than a mile south of Saluda. 

For meal details, visit online at, or visit the group’s Facebook page.  

















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