'Pullman Porter Blues' Travels Back In Time

Dec 6, 2012
Originally published on December 6, 2012 5:01 pm

Today, people board jets or hybrid minivans to travel cross-country. But from the late 19th to mid-20th century, people traveled by train. And that's where they met the legendary Pullman porters.

The Pullman porters were primarily African-American men who collected luggage, served drinks, made beds, polished shoes, tended to the sick, comforted crying babies and even entertained guests. It was viewed as a prestigious job — a far cry from working the fields — but it was also grueling work. Despite being on their feet for hours on end, Pullman porters were required to keep a smile on their face and show pride in their work.

Playwright Cheryl West brings their story back to life in a new play, Pullman Porter Blues, running at Washington, D.C.'s Arena Stage through Jan. 6. West was inspired by her grandfather, who worked on postal trains, and a trip she took as a young child. She remembers the porters' smiles and their impeccably pressed white jackets.

The play depicts the lives of three generations of Pullman porters in 1937. On an overnight train from Chicago to New Orleans, they bond — and squabble — over their past and their dreams. Grandfather Monroe (Larry Marshall) is prideful about his work; his grandson, Cephas (Warner Miller), is idealistic and wants to travel the country. But Sylvester (Cleavant Derricks), Cephas' father, is tired of answering to the white man's demands and wants his son to become a doctor.

West takes pains to show the downside of the porters' jobs — positions that many African-Americans envied.

"Sometimes those men were on their feet 24 hours and did not get to rest, did not get to sleep," West tells NPR's Michel Martin. "And the other thing was, they ... would take two to three hours to get the train ready, and they would not be paid for that time at all."

The play incorporates blues songs like "Trouble in Mind" to express difficulties the porters couldn't easily talk about.

"If anything was missing, you had to pay for it," actor Larry Marshall tells NPR. "If a passenger stole an ashtray, they counted everything in your car, in your area where you were responsible. If anything was missing, it came out of your check."

Industrialist George Pullman created the luxury railroad cars that bore his name in the late 19th century. He hired former slaves as porters just a few years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed. But systematic racism made their work lives burdensome. West recounts stories of porters being awakened just to sing or dance for white passengers.

Civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph advocated for better working conditions for the Pullman men. He helped organize the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the country's first black labor union. After years of fighting, the Pullman Company eventually agreed to higher pay and shorter hours for porters. Randolph's fight for better working conditions for African-Americans extended to equal rights in other areas, too. He joined Martin Luther King Jr. at the 1963 March on Washington. Historians often credit that event with giving rise to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

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I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. These days, if you want to see family or friends or seek out job opportunities, you'd likely hop on a jet or drive in your tricked-out minivan. But in decades past, if you wanted to go far, chances are, you'd go by train. And that's how you might have met a Pullman porter.


BABE SMOCK: You get up at four o'clock in the morning and start your fire and everything and, at about 6 or 6:30, they would hit you with both feet, lay off all day long, report back at 6 o'clock in the evening, report, receive packages at 8 o'clock, and it was a hustle all the way through.

MARTIN: That was former Pullman porter, Babe Smock. At its peak, some 20,000 African-Americans worked for the Pullman Company trains. It was considered respectable work, even prestigious, and certainly a step up from working in the fields. But porters worked grueling hours for low pay, all while working for their rights and better working conditions and bringing the news of the wider world to their communities back home.

Those stories are brought to life in a new play called "Pullman Porter Blues." It's currently showing at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., and playwright Cheryl West and starring actor Larry Marshall are with us now.

Welcome. Thank you both so much for joining us.


CHERYL WEST: Thank you for having us.

MARTIN: Cheryl West, what gave you the idea to write about Pullman porters - such a rich part of this country's history, but not particularly a story that's particularly well-known.

WEST: Well, my grandfather worked on the postal trains, and he's gone now, but before he died, he used to talk about the trains all the time and he would get very romantic about them. And I don't remember his particular stories, but I remember the impression he left me with when he talked about being able to see the entire country, to have a job where he could buy a home for my grandmother.

And I thought, one day, I might write a story about - on a train. And as I did research and found that, yes, these men smiled all the time, but there was a large story behind those smiles, and that's what I attempted to write about.

MARTIN: Larry Marshall, I understand that you had a relative, also, who had been a Pullman porter.

MARSHALL: Yes. My stepfather's father was a Pullman porter, and, as a kid around five years old, six, we used to go down to the depot and meet him when he was coming in. And he'd be in his uniform, and it was, you know, quite an experience, you know, going down there as a kid and seeing all this. It was just wonderful.

MARTIN: Was there a way in which hearing those stories informed your sense of how you took this role - which is actually kind of complex, and we're going to get to that.

MARSHALL: Yeah. Well, I'm from South Carolina. I kind of understand the head that Monroe is in, because I experienced some of that as a kid - racial situation. You know, sitting upstairs in the movie house in the balcony and the back of the bus, all of that stuff, and even going to school - I went to Xavier in New Orleans before the civil rights and had to - late at night, if you wanted something to eat, you'd go to the restaurant and you'd go in the back, you know, where they would hand you your food and stuff. So I experienced all that. I understood the head that he was in.

MARTIN: The play is set in 1937, on a train traveling from Chicago to New Orleans, and it features a family of three generations, all men, working - or trying to work - as Pullman porters. Larry Marshall, you play the part of the patriarch of the family, the proud grandfather, Monroe.

A lot of people have kind of a romantic image of life on the trains, but one of the tensions in the play is the fact that the work is very hard, and the person who plays the character of Monroe's son does not want his son following in the same career path. And I'll just play a short clip.


CLEAVANT DERRICKS: (as Sylvester) Cephas, your grandfather, he does like his fairy tales, building up life on the train as something special.

WARREN MILLER: (as Cephas) But what if it's me?

DERRICKS: (as Sylvester) He's just a simple man. He doesn't know any better.

MARSHALL: (as Monroe) Simple keeps you alive, Sylvester. Everybody can't be as smart as you.

DERRICKS: (as Sylvester) It's not being smart.

MARTIN: Cheryl, how did you come up with this idea, this kind of intergenerational conflict over this? This is something that I think a lot of families will recognize - not just for this situation, but for one that applies to many, many others. How did you come up with this?

WEST: Well, I wanted to be able to tell the history and the story and the approach to being a Pullman porter. And I thought, what better way to do it is to have someone who's been there 50 years as a porter - which Larry Marshall plays that character, Monroe - and then look at the next generation, Monroe's son? And then here's a new son, the grandson, who is on the train for the first time. So they all come to it with a very different approach, a very different regard for being a Pullman porter. So it was a way to be able to tell the story concisely, but through the dynamics of a family.

MARTIN: But one of the insights you bring - could you just talk a little bit about some of the insights that you bring about, what the job was really like that you think might be surprising to people listening to the story for the first time today? Are there some things that you really want to mention that...

WEST: Well, one of the things that surprised me was sometimes those men were on their feet 24 hours and did not get to rest, did not get to sleep. The other thing was that they did not start getting any money. They would take two to three hours to get the train ready and they would not be paid for that time at all. If a man or woman or someone was sick on the train, they had to clean that person, they had to do all of that work. Somebody might ask them, why don't you sing for me? Why don't you tap dance for me? Why don't you do all of that for me? And so how people responded to that type of humiliation is very interesting, and you see it throughout these three generations of men.

MARTIN: Monroe, one of the - I'm sorry. Monroe, isn't this - I'm calling you your character. Isn't that terrible?

MARSHALL: No. It's great.


MARTIN: You know, Larry Marshall, one of the things about your character and one of the things that you have to do on stage is something that if you think about it, these men had to do all day long, which is constantly switch gears from being the role model and leader of your household to having to be in this very subservient role and having to act like you like it. And yet your character also shows real pride in his work.

MARSHALL: Yeah, he does. He does.

MARTIN: And I am really, I'm just curious how you got your mind around having to switch gears like that and to be on the one hand so proud of work that other people don't value and finding your own pride in it, and also having to switch gears from the subservient role to having to - in a way that other people are going to have contempt for.

MARSHALL: I think a lot of it has to do with where he comes from, Mississippi. He's been on a plantation, that's what he grew up on, and as soon as he got a chance to get off there, you know, he went and he became a Pullman porter. Now, he is used to being in a subservient role, you know, with white folks. He's been reared that way. How I can wrap my head around it is an example of when I was a little kid, I was in the backseat of my uncle's car. And this lady walked across the street and I at that time learned how to whistle and I did the, you know, the wolf whistle, you know...


MARSHALL: ...that kind of thing. Well, my uncle ran through the light - just pulled off, pulled on the side and grabbed me. He said, boy, are you crazy? You know, and it didn't dawn on me, I just saw woman. It didn't dawn on me that it was a white woman or a black - but all of a sudden, you know, I remember that feeling and I remember how he reacted to it. And I use that experience with my uncle to wrap my head around how I am supposed to, you know, act in these different situations, you know, seeing that. And this is also a way to get by. This is how you got by in those days, you know. Of course it's different for my son, times are different, and it's truly much different for my grandson, but for me it's ingrained.

MARTIN: But what about the pride?

MARSHALL: It was the freedom that he had in terms of being able to be on the road to see things, to go to different cities, to go to different parts - meet different people (unintelligible) plays, as I wish my dad lived long enough to see me amount to something, you know. And in his mind he's amounting to something. He doesn't have, he has no schooling at all. He's never gone to school. This is all by his own...

MARTIN: His own wits and hand. Yeah.

That's Larry Marshall. He's starring in a new play by Cheryl West. The play is called "Pullman Porter Blues." And Cheryl West and Larry Marshall are both with us now. Larry West plays Monroe, the patriarch of three generations of Pullman porters.

Talk about the role of - the play is "Pullman Porter Blues," Cheryl West.

WEST: Yes.

MARTIN: And the blues play a prominent role in the play. How did you decide that music would be such an important part of the play? And what role does it play?

WEST: When I first pitched this play, I said I know it's going to be about three generations of black men who are porters. It's going to have blues music and it'll be lively. That's all I knew about it at that point. And I knew I wanted to use the blues because the blues is raw and it is our music and it's sort of the next generation up from the field holler. And so I felt like it was an extension of that, and that the blues would help us say and express where words can't, and that that music would be the heartbeat of the show. And in a lot of ways it carries us through the pain, through the humiliation, and through the joy that these people experienced as being a part of a family.

MARTIN: Let me just play a little bit of "Trouble in Mind."


MARSHALL: (Singing) I'm gonna lay, lay my head, on some sad old railroad iron. I'm gonna let that 2:19 pacify my mind, my mind. Trouble in mind...

MARTIN: Larry Marshall, is there anything you learned from the play that you did not already know about the experience of being a Pullman porter? I think one of the things that might surprise some people is to the degree to which these men were kind of undercover civil rights activists.


MARTIN: I mean, you know, carrying newspapers...


MARTIN: ...of job opportunities in other parts of the country that people would otherwise not have had access to. They did this to great risk to themselves in some ways. Is there anything you learned?

MARSHALL: Yeah, that was one of the things that came to light for me, how they were passing on this information newspapers here and passing it off. And one of the other things that got me, though, was realizing that in the play - if anything was missing, you had to pay for it. If a passenger stole an ashtray, they counted everything. And if in your car, in your area where you were responsible, if anything was missing, it came out of your check, you know, which is just, just amazing. 'Cause, you know, people were taking things left and right.

MARTIN: And how would you confront a passenger who slipped an ashtray in his pocket...


MARTIN: ...especially if he was the same person who could tell you to dance or walk with his baby, you know, how would you do that?

MARSHALL: Yeah. Well, you'd probably wait till he was sleep...


MARTIN: Right.

MARSHALL: ...and steal it back, you know, or something like that, you know? It's amazing that you had to pay for stuff that you had no doing in, you know?

MARTIN: Well, Cheryl West, what was the hardest part about conveying this experience to a contemporary audience, you know, where, you know, we live in a very anti-authoritarian time where, you know, if you were, you know, waiting tables and somebody told you to dance, you'd probably water on their head and nobody would think differently of it.

WEST: Right. Right.

MARTIN: I mean was there some particular challenge for you in conveying this time?

WEST: Well, for me, coming up with what the story was, and I thought I wanted an event that would be somewhat of a metaphor for the story, and when to set it. And so I thought, what could that event be? And then I thought, when the Joe Louis win the heavyweight championship? And I had the date, it was June and it was in 1937. And actually, the Pullman porter got their union recognized in August of 1937. So two months after the story would take place they finally got recognized. And you hear - and it took them 12 years to get that labor union and they were the first African-American labor union. So in figuring out the event, helped then to figure out how to tell the story. And in a lot of ways what Joe Lewis represented for black men, the dignity, the ability to fight and to win and to be somebody to look up to, well, this is what these men's journey are on this train.

MARTIN: Was it a challenge at all, and I'm always interested in how people grapple with telling a story that's rooted in history but making it come alive for people today, to tell a story that is true but that doesn't offend a contemporary audience in such a way that they don't want to hear it at all. I'm thinking, for example, one of the characters, Sister Juba, who is a blues singer who's been hired to entertain, you know, the passengers on the train, and she likes her drink, you know.

WEST: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: And the conductor, the white conductor who has a lot of power and control, you know, over the porters, is - I don't know if you mind my saying - a real jerk. I mean a real jerk.

WEST: Yes. Yes, he is. He is.


MARTIN: But given that a lot of the people in your audience are going to be white, I'm just interested, is there a dilemma there in portraying things that are rooted in historical truth without making people not want to hear it?

WEST: Well, I also think that even though the conductor's a jerk, he also has a journey on this train. And that there is also a sense of he is afraid of losing everything. Because the more power that the porters get, the less powerful he has. And I think people can understand that, because we're - in this country even today, we are still trying to blame somebody else if we don't have a job. It's somebody of another ethnic group is why I don't have a job, or women are getting too many jobs. There's always somebody we want to blame. And I feel like the conductor was feeling like that about the porters.

However, I think when you're trying to tell a story, you're looking at how to tell it truthfully, how to tell it with some entertainment value, and if you try to stay on course and be as honest as you can, I think people will get on that train and take that journey with you. Black, white, Hispanic, people embraced that show and said it touched them, because at the heart of it, it's about family love and people can relate to that, whatever culture you come from. So I think the sense of parents wanting their children to do better than they did, people can relate to that. So there are things in the play that can meet you wherever you come to the play with.

MARTIN: "Pullman Porter Blues" is currently at Washington, D.C.'s Arena Stage. Cheryl West is the playwright. Larry Marshall plays the critical figure of Monroe. They are both here in our Washington, D.C. studios.

Thank you both so much for joining us.

MARSHALL: Oh, thank you.

WEST: Thank you.

MARTIN: And to take us home, here's "Sweet Home Chicago," as sung by Larry Marshall and other cast members of "Pullman Porter Blues." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.