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Diplomats of the Railway

Digital Exhibitions → Derailed: The History of Black Railway Porters in Canada → Theme: Diplomats of the Railway

Porters were the first and often the last railway employees passengers encountered. They were the diplomats on the railway—the pleasant workers who ensured a safe and comfortable journey. Everything porters did for the passengers came with the traditional smiles that were “miles wide.” Porters were at the passenger’s beck and call all hours of the day and night. Passengers often received attention by calling the porters by a name they hated—George, or George’s Boy, in reference to George Pullman, the founder of Pullman Porters. This was in keeping with the diplomatic—and even subservient roles they performed.

Porters were outstanding members of their community. Most of all, porters were the members of the Black community who had regular work. Often, they were the sole breadwinner and provider not only for their immediate family but also for the extended family members in the community. As a group, the porters were among the best educated. University students from the West Indies were typically recruited by Canadian railways to supplement the rosters of active porters. Typically, Black men were hired only on the railways in North America. They worked only as porters—the lowest level positions of employment on the trains, initially with no hope for a promotion or change of job.

The following dramatic monologue portrays a Porter Supervisor, the shining example of a Railway Porter. Performed by Daniel Jelani Ellis.

A Day in the Life of a Porter
Porter work was drudgery: often gone from home for several days, working long hours with hardly any sleep, always at the ready to serve the passengers. Initially, they were paid mainly in tips, gratuities from the passengers. Usually the porters reported for work up to four hours before the train’s scheduled departure.

Segregation & Working Conditions
Canada’s two main railways had different work agreements for porters. CNR and its unions formally agreed to a segregated workplace where Black and white workers were placed in different unions and with black men working exclusively as porters. CPR relentlessly crushed attempts by Black workers to organize themselves, while maintaining the same type of segregation as CNR.

Cultural Ambassadors
In an era of racial segregation, porters linked Black communities across North America with the rest of society. They were smartly dressed at work and in their community. In their communities, they were the purveyors of the latest fashions, clothes they bought while on out-of-town stops.

They Call Me George
Passengers initially saw porters as domestic workers offering good house-keeping services for the owner of the first sleeping car service, George Pullman. It was as if the passengers were visiting Pullman’s luxurious home on wheels and his attendants, like butlers of old, were serving them.