For most of the 20th century, luxury travel meant train travel. And if you were lucky enough to afford it, you spent the night in a private Pullman sleeping car.
George Pullman invented a train seat that converted into a bed after he spent the night trying to sleep sitting up in his train seat. By 1862, he’d patented his invention and founded the Pullman Palace Sleeping Car Company. Not only did Pullman manufacture sleeping cars for the railroads, he also operated the cars. After the Civil War, Pullman staffed his cars with former slaves hired off the plantations. According to playwright Cheryl West, these were among the best jobs available to African-American men at that time. “Getting to see the country, when all you’ve known is slavery and plantations?” she muses. “Getting to wear a suit, getting to wear a tie, that was amazing for that time.”
But West says the work was menial and not very well paid. Even after the porters organized themselves into the first African-American labor union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the African-American men had an ambivalent relationship with the mainly white passengers they served. West clearly recalls the porters she met on a train trip nearly 50 years ago. They were at the beck and call of the passengers, yet they never stopped smiling. “And I thought, I wonder why they’re so happy?”
Five years ago, West got a chance to answer that question when the Seattle Repertory Theatre commissioned her to write a play. “Pullman Porter Blues” is set in 1937 on a train traveling between Chicago and New Orleans. West chose to tell the story through the eyes of three generations of porters from a single family. It’s a personal treatment of a chapter in history that touched many African-American lives.
Retired Boeing engineer Thomas Gray, Jr. worked his way through college as a train attendant. Gray’s father worked as a Pullman porter for 44 years and Gray’s grandfather worked on a mail train. The work was hard, but Gray remembers it fondly. He believes thousands of African- American families have similar histories. In fact, playwright Cheryl West’s grandfather also worked on a train. “He constantly, after he retired, talked about how wonderful the trains were,” she recalls. “He romanticized the trains.” West says for many men like her grandfather and Thomas Gray, the romance of the rails lingered long after the job ended.
Cheryl West’s play “Pullman Porter Blues” opens Seattle Repertory Theatre’s 50th anniversary season. After its Seattle run, the play will move to Washington D.C.’s Arena Stage theater. The Arena Stage co-produced the production. West wants general audiences to connect to the drama, but it’s most important to her to be true to the history that inspired her. “It has to exemplify the dignity of those men.”