On a Pullman sleeping-car train, the tables were set with white linen tablecloths and flowers, the lounge cars featured plush armchairs, the freshly made beds were turned down every evening.
The porters were the men who set those tables, turned down those beds, fetched drinks, shined passengers' shoes, and responded to the passenger's every need, whether it was a towel or idle conversation. The porters were always black men. They were poorly paid for virtually constant on-call work, but their meticulous service became the symbol and drawing card of the Pullman line.
"Miles of Smiles, Years of Struggles," which airs tonight at 10 on WETA, Channel 26, is a sometimes funny, often moving account of the Pullman porter's remarkable (and largely untold) history, from the beginning of the train line through the unionization of the porters -- an unprecedented step for black workers -- to the civil rights movement. The Pullman Co. went out of business in 1969.
The program is narrated by Rosina Tucker, handsome at 100 years old, a Washington native whose husband was a Pullman car porter. Tucker, in blue suit and pearls, has a clear, throaty voice and tells deliciously cocky tales of her own days helping organize the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.
Former porters come back to the site of old Pullman trains, sitting ghostly still and unused in sunlit fields, and go through the cars, describing their lives and their jobs. With a depressed passenger, "you had to use a little philosophy," says one porter. With a troublesome, drunk passenger, "you had to use diplomacy."
In one scene, two porters go through the intricacies of making a bed, jokingly admonishing each other to remember which fold in the sheet went where until they have a perfect bed. One turns to the camera and says, "Now, don't you want to get in this bed? It sure is a good one."
"We gave service in those days," says another one. "They don't have service today like we had in them days."
The pride and dignity they took in their work is evident in the image of the former porters -- suit-and-tie-clad as they thoughtfully recount stories of the days when they made $67 a month (1925) and endured insults from whites, not the least of which was being called "George," the name white passengers called every porter, "as if he were George Pullman's boy," says narrator Tucker. "Miles of smiles" was what the porters called the job, since they were expected to grin a lot.
In 1925, the young A. Philip Randolph -- who would eventually become one of this century's great labor and civil rights leaders--called a meeting of porters in Harlem and told them to organize at a time when no white union wanted black members. Naturally the porters' jobs were immediately on the line. That's where women like Rosina Tucker came in. Tucker, who led the Women's Auxiliary of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, secretly went around to porters to disseminate information and collect dues for the burgeoning Brotherhood. Eventually -- 12 years after that first meeting -- the Pullman Co. signed an agreement with the brotherhood.
One of the best interviews in the show is with E.D. Nixon, the Montgomery, Ala., porter who originated and organized the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955. Nixon recounts calling people to a meeting to discuss the boycott. A hesitant Martin Luther King told Nixon that he should call him later for an answer. So Nixon got commitments from others and then called King back. King said he would come. That's good, Nixon said, because "I told 18 other people to meet at your church . . . and it'd look kind of bad to have that many people coming up to your church and you weren't there."
The interviews with former porters are interspersed with photos of the porters at work and footage from such movies as "Emperor Jones," in which Paul Robeson plays a Pullman car porter.
The program was funded by a grant from the D.C. Community Humanities Council and matching support from the Brotherhood of Railway and Airline Clerks. The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters went out of existence in 1978.