Van E. Harl


Pullman porter at the Union Station, Chicago, Illinois: January 1943
Pullman porter at the Union Station,
Chicago, Illinois: January 1943
When I was in the Air Force there was no internet. If you were stationed overseas the only regular way to communicated back home was by mail. There were ways to phone, but it was a difficult (because of time zones) and expensive. I got my first cell phone the year I retired from active duty.

There is good and bad in this improvement in worldwide communications. If there is an emergency you can get the word out immediately and help can respond in a matter of minutes. However, because of such great communications abilities our society has come to not only expect, but demand instant response to the daily normal activities. How many of you have had a boss or family member who contacts you for a routine matter and expects because they called or e-mailed you, that you should stop whatever you were working on (no matter how important) and take care of their perceived much more important need?

I put myself through college on what I call the Amtrak scholarship. I was one of the first white men hired to be a Pullman Porter back in 1974. We were officially called sleeping car attendants, but I was a Pullman Porter. I rode the trains out of Chicago all over the US. I got my passengers on the train, made up their beds, polished their shoes, clean up after the drunken ones and then got them off at their destination. In two years I made enough money to pay for my undergraduate degree. On a run to the west coast I was on the train for three days and completely out of touch with the world. We were not even allowed to have portable radios to listen to the news, because the noise might bother the passengers.

Traveling to Los Angeles we passed through the small town of Starkville, Colorado. I was standing in the door as we rolled by the town when I saw the porter (he was black) in the next car, throw a newspaper to an elderly black man waiting by the tracks. I asked him what he was doing and did he know the man on the ground. My fellow porter after appearing a little taken back that I had seen him, informed me that there was a tradition to pass on the newspaper to the man on the ground. I did not ask any more questions, but on our return trip from California I had an LA Times newspaper ready. As we passed by Starkville I tossed out the paper to that waiting black gentleman. At first I would collect newspapers left on the train by the passengers, later I always left Chicago or LA with a newspaper I had bought. Every time I went through Starkville I passed on a paper. On the odd occasion he was not there I still threw out the paper because I knew he would come by later and pick it up.

I did not know until almost thirty years later that according to Larry Tye (author) “the most influential black man in America for the 100 years following the civil war was the Pullman porter.” When George Pullman first started hiring black men to be porters on his sleeper cars he insisted they had to be able to read. This was a tall order in the 1860s but it proved to be a decisive move that allowed nationwide communication for blacks. The Pullman porter would pick up the newspapers and magazines left on the train. First he would read the publications for his increased knowledge and then, just as I learned at Starkville, he would pass the papers on along the railroad lines of America.

In southern states where blacks were essentially excluded in the media, many a New York or Washington D.C. newspaper was brought into the farthest corners of that region. Returning porters to the north brought out information that was being kept from the public and this information was then printed in black newspapers. I had just driven by Starkville, this past week crossing into Colorado, when my cell phone rang. It was my father calling from Iowa to tell me my aunt had died. Four days later as I was approaching Starkville from the north, dad called to advice me the family was all gathered at my aunt’s farm and were departing for the funeral.

Instant communication has changed our society, but sad news is still sad news.