Published April 3, 2019
In 2009, President-elect Barack Obama arrived in Washington by train for his inauguration as the nation’s 44th president.
The symbolic three-day journey, which began in Philadelphia, paid homage to Abraham Lincoln, but Obama’s decision to travel by train was also a tribute to the historical struggles and achievements of sleeping car porters, who in the 1920s formed the first African-American-led labor union in the United States, creating in the process a brotherhood that became home to some of the day’s leading intellectuals and an instrument for social change.
The sleeping car porters were an essential element to the growing fortunes of the 19th century railroad industry, but beyond their professional roles, the porters, through their diligence and activism, helped amend immigration policy and secure civil rights for a marginalized population, according to Cecil Foster, professor and chair of the Department of Transnational Studies, and author of the new book “They Call Me George: The Untold Story of the Black Train Porters and the Birth of Modern Canada.”
Foster will give a reading and sign copies of his book at 7 p.m. April 25 at Talking Leaves Books, 951 Elmwood Ave., Buffalo.
“While this is a story of what happened in Canada, it is still part of the American narrative,” says Foster, a novelist, journalist and scholar, and an expert in Canadian studies and multiculturalism. “The sleeping car porters are an important part of the black experience, and coming out of slavery we can hear its transnational orientation.”
The book places the porters in the historical context of the generation of immigrants who arrived in Canada from Caribbean countries. Foster says this group changed the United Kingdom, which included Canada at the time, and put the country on a multicultural path, while also securing human rights in North America through their careers on the railroad.
“These men on the trains, coming out of Harlem and Chicago and Montreal and Toronto, formed a transnational black community,” he says. “Great leaders A. Phillip Randolph and others emerged from this community to work with Martin Luther King.
“They challenged the system across North America and are responsible for many of the gains during the civil rights movement. Their contributions shouldn’t be underestimated.”
With the introduction of luxury Pullman cars in the 1870s, railroads needed employees to take care of passengers’ every need. Porters staffed the transcontinental Pullman cars as domestic servants.
Pullman cars allowed passengers to stay on trains rather than rent hotel rooms during layovers; Jim Crow laws, meantime, prevented the car’s porters from staying at the hotels their passengers no longer needed.
“The porters were sometimes known as ‘sleepy’ car porters because they worked to exhaustion, often out on their feet,” says Foster. “Eventually, the railroads rented rooms in the black communities of major cities. It’s there that the porters slept, in rooms filled with bunks.”
For decades after the Civil War, working as a sleeping car porter was the only employment available to black men in the U.S. and Canada, he says.
From the beginning of Canadian confederation in 1867, Canada’s policies toward black people was in lockstep with the United States, according to Foster.
Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier in Canada worked to institutionalize Jim Crow laws in Canada just as Woodrow Wilson, Laurier’s friend, would do as president of the United States.
Prior to the 1960s, Parliament permitted only white British subjects to immigrate to Canada. The restrictive policy contributed to a drop in Canada’s black population from around 50,000 in 1867 to 18,000 by 1950.
“Canada systematically kept black people out of the country or forced them to go to the U.S.,” says Foster. “Canada argued it did not have a color line because there was no significant black population in that country.”
When railroad barons broke the Canadians’ attempt to organize, porters in Canada joined their American counterparts in their organized-labor efforts. Many of the changes pioneered in Canada by the sleeping car porters made their way to the U.S.
“One of the ways to read this book is to hear how Canada was not unique at all,” says Foster. “The country was another example of how to fight Jim Crow.”
And the porters were on the front lines of that fight.
“Life is better for many because of these men,” says Foster. “They were active in taking on the government and creating a society where there is social justice and everyone is entitled to the benefits of a common citizenship.”