Museum Notes 2-10-2021

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Sometimes a simple object can tell a story that runs deep into American history. These chimes represent so much more than what they appear. These are dinner bell chimes used by porters on passenger trains.

Shortly after the Civil War, George Pullman created the first sleeper cars for trains. His idea was to bring luxury to the rails with extravagant cars served by dedicated porters. Pullman specifically chose former slaves to be porters, because he knew there was a large unemployed labor force that would work for cheap pay. For the next 100 years, Black men were exclusively hired to be porters.

Porters were subjected to several indignities. They were often referred to as George, a throwback to slavery when slaves would be called by their master’s name. Each month, they were required to work 400 hours or 11,000 miles, which ever came first. They worked 20 hour shifts with very little sleep. They carried luggage, shined shoes, made beds, cleaned toilets, and kept their cars tidied. When meals were ready to be served in the dining cars, porters would ring chimes like these to signal the waiting feast.

By 1925, porters had had enough. They formed the very first Black labor union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. As expected, the Pullman Company resisted the union’s demands. After 10 years of negotiation, a labor agreement was finally signed. This collected bargaining agreement between Black workers and a major corporation helped lay the foundation for the future Civil Rights era.

In December 1955, when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man, it was a Pullman porter, E.D. Nixon, who headed the local NAACP and helped organize the Montgomery bus boycott.

Within the Black community, a porter was seen as a dignified profession and it helped create the Black middle class. For several decades, the Pullman Company was the largest employer of Blacks in America. Porters had a steady job that paid well with tips. It was a job to aspire to become. Also, as the men traveled across America, they would bring home their experiences and Black newspapers from different cities. Thus, at that time, porters were a major mode of information among the Black community.

By the 1960s, less people traveled by trains and by the 1970s, the era of porters was over.

These dinner bell chimes are all that we have at the museum that represent the unknown total of unnamed porters that passed through Canadian during those decades. This Black History month, we recognize their service and their contributions.

To learn more about the history of porters, visit the National A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum at



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