Iconic Pullman Stepstool
In honor of the opening of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, this blog post is about the little known influence of railroad Pullman porters on hastening the demise of the Jim Crow laws in the South.
The South has historically been a repressive and unfriendly region to African Americans, unless of course the white population required menial laborers, cotton mill workers, domestic help, etc.
The region went so far as to legally ban African American newspapers published in the North from being sold in the South. One such highly influential paper was the Chicago Defender. (From 1956-2003 it was called the Chicago Daily Defender.)
It was understandable why segregationists did not want The Defender circulating below the Mason-Dixon line. It was the prime source of information regarding the horrible extent of lynching and the gross injustice of Jim Crow. And yet, thanks indirectly to the Pullman Company, the banned paper reached its Southern audience.
The first class sleeper cars of the Pullman Company served the wealthy elite in trains throughout the entire United States. With yellow Pullman stepstools in hand, the porters – always African American – would help these passengers board and exit the train. Many porters would pick up copies of the Defender when the train traveled north, and distribute them at stations in the south.
The yellow stepstool became a symbol of the Pullman porters' influence.
Once again we were in a rural junk shop in Vermont looking for the rare find and – lo and behold – a Pullman stepstool, with the remains of its original paint and the name Pullman on the side. It was in the back of a barn and covered in grease and grime. But it was clearly Pullman and I had to have it. Wow, I paid far too much for it but I could not pass it up.
To be honest with you, I was not aware of its historic significance until recently. I am pleased to honor the dignity, industry and fortitude of these hardworking Pullman porters.