18 May, 2009

Pulllman Porters - Invisible to Children?

National Public Radio had a terrific piece on May 7th about the history of Pullman Porters. The story explored the labor history and unionization of Pullman porters: Pullman Porters Help Build Black Middle Class One of the main points of the program was that Pullman porters were hired to be invisible. Men who would attend to every need and be completely unintrusive: the perfect servant. Several days after hearing this story, I was giving a CLIC tour to someone with ties to the railways (okay, it was my mother-in-law, whose father, uncle, and grandfather all served on the rails in various capacities.) Recalling the NPR segment, we looked at our holdings on railroad history. I wondered how the history and stories of these remarkable men was expressed in children's literature. Are Pullman porters present in the pictures and text? The call number area, HE2750-90, held some intriguing titles.*

The first book that caught my eye was The Building of the First Transcontinental Railroad by Adele Nathan, published in 1950. This book is part of The Landmark Series, published by Random House. Our copy is the 4th printing, which gives some evidence of the book's popularity. In this book, there are the repeated expressions of "the great white expansion", the battles with "Indians", and a few mentions of Chinese workers, but there is absolutely no reference at all to Pullman porters. I was intrigued by the pencil marks throughout the book of "begin", "end", and "omit". It appears that someone read this book out loud to children, focusing on the most exciting parts.

Move forward 54 years to the new Landmark Series, published again by Random House. Hear That Train Whistle Blow!: How the Railroad Changed the World, by Milton Meltzer, published in 2004. This book has a picture of a Pullman porter right on the book jacket.
The history of Pullman porters is woven into the text, with sections on the creation of the luxurious Pullman cars and the hiring of porters. There is a nicely written chapter on the formation of the porter labor union, activist Asa Philip Randolph, and the planned March on Washington in July of 1941. Although the march never happened, the threat was enough to pressure President Roosevelt into issuing Executive Order 8802 that barred discrimination in defense industries and federal bureaus (the Fair Employment Act). This is a well written book, with period photographs and documents. No particular group is charicatured, allowing the complexities of history to emerge.

Full Steam Ahead: The Race to Build a Transcontinental Railroad by Rhoda Blumberg was published in 1996 by the National Geographic Society. This book includes the political circumstances of the first railroad construction, the actual conditions of Chinese laborers, and the rivalries between the railroad barons. While there appears to be an attempt to be balanced, it is discouraging that "Indians" are not distinguished by people or tribe. No mention of Pullman porters.

In my perusal of picture books about railroads and trains there are no pictures of Pullman porters included as part of the voyage. Sometimes, there is a friendly engineer waving from the engine or passengers in the windows. Huck Scarry's Steam Train Journey, published in 1979, has captivating bits. (Most will be more familiar the work of his son, Richard Scarry.) In the Scarry tradition, all the parts of the trains, their functions, and the various journeys are detailed. But no Pullman porters are anywhere! Considering the current attention and scholarship related to Pullman porters and their contribution to railroad history - and more significantly, to their seminal role in the American civil rights movement - perhaps a wonderful picture book will emerge. Kadir Nelson, are you listening?

The Long Hard Journey: The Story of the Pullman Porter, by Patricia and Frederick McKissack (1989), is part of the Walker American Series for Young People. This book is a complete history. Rich in language and documentation, the history of the Pullman porters is presented 144 pages that you will not be able to put down. This book includes a bibliography of primary and secondary sources. Wonderful!

A book to contrast The Long Hard Jouney is the 1938 book Through By Rail, authored by Charles Hall and published by Macmillan. George Pullman is aggrandized and the text refers to shoe shining and smiling porters who "look after the travelers comfort." Just reading these two books side by side would be enough to elicit, and indeed provoke, a conversation about historical representation.

Most of these books are intended for children ages 9-12. There is a film, 10,000 Black Men Named George, that might engage high school age kids. It's produced by Showtime, and to be candid, the acting and storyline is okay. However, it does explore the working conditions of Pullman porters. More importantly, the contextual background regarding the publication of the socialist journal,The Messenger by Asa Philip Randolph sparks one's interest in early 20th century politics.

Children's literature - for all of us! Informing our cultural values and priorities. Creative works that are truly interdisciplinary.

*Note: In 2008, our library re-classed our children's literature collection from an in-house Dewey system to Library of Congress classification. So, someone browsing the online catalog for railroad history would hopefully notice the children's literature interspersed in the results list. Our aim in The Children's Literature Interdisciplinary Collection, CLIC, is to encourage the use of children's publications in academic study and scholarship.


piper said...

Nice post. The Long Hard Journey: The Story of the Pullman Porter sounds like an incredible book. Are you purchasing it?

Sylvia said...

Yes! We'll have it in the library sometime this summer.

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