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Sewing: After working 40 years as a porter and chef, a Spring man’s story is a civil rights triumph

Houston Chronicle logo Houston Chronicle 5/15/2022 By Joy Sewing, Staff writer

To serve people in the way that George Lewis did requires an attention to detail.

The fold of the table napkin, the turndown of the bed linens. All done with precision, sophistication and pride.

Lewis, now 75, worked for 40 years as a railroad Pullman porter and chef before he retired in 2017. His memories of traveling the country by train are rich with stories of serving presidents, celebrities and everyday people.

Not everyone is fit for a career serving others, but Lewis liked his work.

“It was a lifestyle, more than a job, to me,” said Lewis, who now lives in Spring with family. “I enjoyed making people comfortable while they were on board because, for a lot of people, it was their first time traveling. I kind of put them at ease. I’ve always been a people person and enjoy serving people. I never had a problem with that.”

Lewis’ career path is part of the nation’s storied past.

For nearly 100 years before Lewis even started his railroad journey, Black men were hired by the Pullman Co., which revolutionized sleeping-car train travel, to serve affluent white passengers on trains.

They provided white-glove service in plush dining cars and sleeping cabins. They loaded luggage, ironed clothes and did whatever task was demanded of them. They were overworked, often clocking in nearly 400 hours or more a month; they were underpaid and faced persistent racism and indignities as they served white passengers across the country.

They also were called “boy” or “George,” after Pullman founder George Pullman. Or worse, the N-word. Ironically, Lewis’ given name is George.

During the 1920s, more than 20,000 Black Americans worked for the company. By 1925, the Pullman porters formed the nation’s first all-Black union, the Brotherhood of the Sleeping Car Porters. The union was influential in the civil rights movement and became the voice of the Black working class. Pullman porters were also instrumental in sharing news about the Black community to the South by transporting copies of African American newspapers.

“I stood on the shoulders of a lot of Black men who worked hard, should have been paid their worth and gotten the respect they deserve,” said Lewis, who will talk about the legacy of Pullman porters for the Galveston Railroad Museum’s Juneteenth program on June 18. The event is open to the public.

Lewis never saw himself as subservient, but he knew how to follow the rules, like his grandmother taught him growing up in Corrigan, Texas.

“My grandmother said I had to abide by the rules that were set before me, but she also said it won’t be like this all the time,” he said.

Lewis previously worked at Neiman Marcus and said Stanley Marcus, president of the retail company, wanted to make him a buyer, which was unheard of for a Black man. But the railroad paid more and had better benefits. Marcus couldn’t match it.

“Stanley Marcus saw something in me that no one else had seen since I had worked in retail about six or seven years by then. I was working two jobs to pay bills. I got the offer to work on the railroad, but he couldn’t do anything for me and wasn’t going to try. He did have his limits.”

By the time Lewis joined the Southern Pacific Railroad in 1977, Pullman porters weren’t subjected to the blatant racism of the decades prior, but still, the air of oppression was ever-present.

“It was still the good ol’ boys’ train when I came into the railroad,” he said. “You had to be seen and not heard. It was different, but we still could not sit at a table off-duty with white people, especially if you’re traveling down through the South. You had to know your place.”

Although the Pullman Co. merged with another in the 1930s, the term “Pullman porter” remained synonymous with the railroad service role.

“A lot of people thought I was from the East Coast because I didn’t talk like a typical Black person. I said, ‘I don’t know what a ‘typical Black person’ talks like, but I was raised in a household where I was taught to use proper English,’” he said.

For Lewis, providing comfort and service in a sophisticated manner was what he enjoyed most. He also liked dressing up — in his white uniform with gray sleeves or gray cuffs. For evening, he would change into a white dinner jacket and white pants. But trying to keep something clean on a train back then was almost impossible, he said.

By the late 1970s and ’80s, more Black people were traveling by train. That was something that gave Lewis considerable pride.

“I made sure I’d give Black passengers the same exact courtesy and service that I always gave. Later, we started getting women managers. I always tried to keep protocol at a decent level,” he said.

About that time, my own family would take train rides between Houston and Kansas City, my parents’ home.

On one trip, our Pullman porter happened to be Leo Fisher, my mother’s algebra teacher.

I was too young to remember, but my mother tells the story of how Fisher wore white gloves as he created an elegant dining experience for us. He had retired from teaching and found a new life on the railroad.

Lewis traveled months at time, often missing holidays and birthdays and other family celebrations at home, he said. He later became a train chef and served dignitaries and celebrities, including President George H.W. Bush and first lady Barbara Bush, the cast of the sitcom “Frasier” and bestselling author Tom Clancy.

A good Pullman porter is someone “who minds their own business,” he said.

“There were some who had been there a long time and felt like they could say anything to people,” he said. “They would see on my face it just wasn’t right. I always believed you should treat people the way you wanted to be treated, regardless of the circumstances.”

Other useful job attributes, he said, were knowing how to keep a calm demeanor and not take offense easily.

More than glorified butlers or servants, Pullman porters helped shape American history.

“They went through a lot to maintain their dignity. That’s why I stand firmly on their shoulders,” Lewis said.


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