Benjamin Franklin Gaines was a man in uniform.
For more than quarter of a century, Gaines wore the uniform of the United States Postal Service, and worked out the downtown Evanston post office.
But for nearly a decade before that, Gaines wore a different uniform, the starched white jacket (or black uniform coat) of a Pullman Company sleeping car porter.
Raised in Evansville, Indiana, Gaines moved to Chicago, in the words of his son, Benjamin Franklin Gaines Jr., “because it provided the best opportunity for young Black men at that time.”
That opportunity, in what was still a very segregated America, was the chance to take care of travelers crossing the country in Pullman sleeping cars, by making up the beds, carrying the luggage and shining the shoes of passengers, or as an attendant serving food and drinks in the club car.
Wages were low. Much of the porters income came from tips.
Pullman company records (maintained at the Newberry Library in Chicago) show that Benjamin Gaines was hired by Pullman on June 1, 1945, starting out as what was described as a bus boy, and subsequently being promoted to porter and club car attendant.
His father had a “thirst for travel,” Gaines Jr. said.
“He went by train to pretty much every state in the union.”
But where the train went also had an impact on how Gaines and the other porters were treated.
“You crossed the Mason-Dixon line,” Gaines Jr. recalled his father saying, and “things changed.”
The Black porters, dining car waiters and club car attendants had to endure humiliating and hurtful racial slurs and stereotyping for the century Pullman staffed the trains, from the late 1860s to the late 1960s.
Pullman conductors were all white, maintaining the strict racial hierarchy of the times.
But some porters fought against the ugly treatment, as best they could.
In an interview taped at the A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porters Museum near the Pullman Historical site on Chicago’s South Side, Gaines Sr. recalled that “one of the things that was commonplace was that [passengers] all wanted to call you ‘George.'” — as in George Pullman, founder of the Pullman Palace Car Company.
“I was young and smart,” Gaines continued.
“Being young and smart,” Gaines said, “I ignored them.”
“Then they’d say ‘porter’ and I’d turn around.”
“‘Yes,'” Gaines would then reply and then add “‘But there’s no George in my name.'”
Gaines said the passengers were “taken aback, but I never got any response.”
(The Interstate Commerce Commission outlawed racial segregation on interstate trains in late 1955.)
George Pullman founded his company in what was then an independent village just south of Chicago.
The town of Pullman (annexed into Chicago at the end of the 19th century) was established as what was supposed to be a model community, complete with company-owned housing within walking distance to work at the Pullman plant.
George Pullman first decided to hire formerly enslaved Black men as porters following the Civil War, because he felt they were used to being servants to white people, and would not rock the boat, or the train.
He was wrong.
In 1925, A. Philip Randolph founded the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the nation’s first all-Black labor union.
After a dozen years of struggle, the company finally recognized the brotherhood with a contract in 1937.
Randolph would subsequently become one of the leaders of the civil rights movement and was one of the organizers of the famous 1963 March on Washington, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech.
Other porters in Randolph’s union had their own roles in the drive for equal rights.
Gaines Jr. recalled that “one of the things his father was proudest of” was taking copies of the Chicago Defender, a major Black newspaper of the era, all around the country.
“He would deliver those newspapers to Black communities,” Gaines Jr. said.
“That’s how news got out to the rural towns all over America.”
Spreading news often ignored by general circulation papers, particularly in small towns and in the South, “was one of the huge roles that porters played in our national history,” Gaines Jr. added.
After leaving Pullman in 1954, Gaines Sr. and his wife Lydia moved in 1959 from Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood to Evanston, where they raised two sons, Benjamin Jr. and Michael.
Benjamin Jr. still lives in that house today.
He recalled that when his parents moved to Evanston, “they could not get a loan” from a bank here.
“They had to use a downtown bank, and also the teachers’ credit union,” to find a mortgage.
Lydia Gaines died in 2008 at age 92. She had been a school teacher.
Benjamin Franklin Gaines passed away at age 100, on April 13, 2023.
In the years before his passing, Gaines Sr. still loved to travel.
One of his last trips was with Ben Jr. to Alaska, which was not even a state when Ben Sr. was a porter.
Still, it was totally appropriate and memorable, Gaines Jr. said, for he and his dad to make a key part of their Alaska journey a trip through that state … by train.
According to author Larry Tye, whose “Rising From the Rails” is the definitive history of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the Pullman Company was the nation’s largest employer of African Americans in the early 1900s.
By 1925, when the union organized, it had approximately 18,000 members. When Pullman stopped sleeping car operations in 1969, there were fewer than 400 active porters.
Many of the remaining porters stayed on to work for Amtrak, which took over the nation’s intercity passenger train service.
I was a summertime Amtrak employee in 1974 and 75, and worked with many of the Brotherhood’s veterans as a coach porter and dining car waiter.
It was an honor.
Both the Pullman National Historical Park, the former administration building and rest of the site, and the National A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum can be visited in the Pullman neighborhood.
Of course, the best way to get there is by train. Metra Electric from downtown Chicago to the 111th Street-Pullman stop.