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‘Pullman Company Maids’ Exhibit Captures Black Women’s Work Experience During Jim Crow

My grandfather was a Pullman Porter from the late 1930s. He spoke fondly of his time and considered A. Phillip Randolph, civil rights activist and organizer of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, a hero. .

A proud member of the African-American union, his job as a porter placed the Moores in the middle class. Grandpa never told me – nor did I ask – about the black women who worked on the Pullman cars. I assumed they didn’t exist.

Turns out they did.

I learned from a new free exhibit that black women worked on these luxury trains as chambermaids. The public can get a glimpse of their stories at Chicago’s Newberry Library, which rightly puts these women and their stories in plain sight. “Handmaidens for Travellers: The Pullman Company Maids” features records from Newberry’s collection.

Long eclipsed by porters, the good ones were less numerous. Often they were the only black employee in a Pullman car. Women like Mae Josephine Cole. Nanny Bell Crevin. Rosa Lillebelle Davis. These are three of the maids whose photos are enlarged to be seen by the public at the entrance to the exhibition. The photos are from their Pullman Company employee cards.

Like porter jobs, car maid jobs created stable jobs and allowed travel across the United States—rare opportunities for African Americans. And like porters, housekeepers relied on tips to supplement their pay by providing white passengers with manicures or hairstyles. One photo on display is a black woman in uniform sitting across from a white woman as she holds her fingernails. Another photo shows a housekeeper flanked by two children and a baby, as it appears she is reading the newspaper to them.

Maid uniforms consisted of a one-piece black dress with a white collar and a bib apron with strings long enough to tie a neat bow. Lace ruffles, black shoes and stockings completed the outfit.

Housekeepers were subject to the whims of white passengers who waved at them or accused them of theft if an item was missing during the train journey. To apply for a housekeeper position, the women went through an intrusive process that investigated the cleanliness of their home environment. In 1927, maids had to undergo a medical examination to allay concerns about infectious diseases such as tuberculosis.

Miriam Thaggert, author of “Riding Jane Crow: African-American Women on the American Railroad,” curated the exhibit and pulled material never seen before by the public. A job application asked questions such as “does the applicant have moderate habits”, “does the applicant gamble or gamble in any way” and whether the candidate was crippled, deformed, or in debt. A four-page pamphlet lists 17 rules for maids. The rules included ordering maids to be subordinate to conductors. The use of rouge or powder was forbidden.

There is no doubt that Pullman jobs provided security for black workers. George Pullman’s commitment to hiring African Americans came after the Civil War. Pullman train carriages, known for their ornate and lavish accommodations, stepped straight into the Jim Crow era. The Pullman society presented women as “servants for travellers”. The choice of words is striking. Black maids and porters worked in servitude for wealthy white clients. One side of the indignity came with paychecks.

The Newberry expo is the start of what I hope will be more attention to neglected maids. Looking at their photos, I wonder if they felt hope as they traveled north to revel in the spoils promised by the Great Migration. Were they disappointed? Did they arrive on the trains and feel the pangs of second-class citizens? How did they maintain their dignity in the face of accusations?

We don’t get all the answers from this exhibit, but we can keep asking the questions to bring the maids out of the shadows.

“Handmaids for Travellers: Handmaidens of the Pullman Company” runs until September 16 at the Newberry Library.

Natalie Moore is a journalist atWBEZ.

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