The object in the collection of the National Museum of African American History that I found most interesting was this uniform cap of Pullman Porter Robert Thomas. Being from the Chicago area, I have heard much about about the Pullman Palace Car Company and even visited the factory building and some of the row houses in the Pullman neighborhood, all of which are still standing, currently being lived in, and have recently been named a National Historic Landmark District site.
While the company itself is a fascinating subject in itself, the porters add an extra layer of uniqueness to the story, as represented by this man’s cap. All that I started out knowing about the porters was from a small section in a permanent exhibit at the Chicago History Museum entitled “Facing Freedom in America,” which only touched on the elements that went into making the African American experience in the Pullman company significant– basically it said that Pullman created these jobs as part of a much larger business model, which allowed him to hire newly freed slaves (as cheap labor) and create an experience around them in a way that made the white middle class feel like they were being treated as the upper class.
It turns out the story is much larger then that. The uniform was a mark of their service to the company, and to the illusion that the men in them were the stereotypical servant class. According to historian Greg LeRoy, “A Pullman Porter was really kind of a glorified hotel maid and bellhop in what Pullman called a hotel on wheels. The Pullman Company just thought of the porters as a piece of equipment, just like another button on a panel – the same as a light switch or a fan switch.”
In spite of this, a Pullman porter was still the largest employer of African Americans in the United States, and was a job that every African American man aspired to for both the level of status that it gave the, the pay level, and the ability to travel. For these reasons, the job is credited with creating a middle class for the African American community. The porters are also credited with being some of the first steps in the Civil Rights Movement not only because of their unionization movement in the 1920’s–which was practically unheard of– but also because of what some of their members did. It was a former Pullman porter, E. D. Nixon, who bailed Rosa Parks out of jail and was a critical figure in the organization of the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
While I couldn’t find much information specifically about Robert Thomas, the man who wore this hat, I’m sure that he had a similar experience to what his fellow porters experienced in the 1920’s and was part of that founding unionization.