Home > About > Bill Peak's Library Column > Riding the Rails at the Talbot County Free Library
I have to admit, the first time I went to see Miles of Smiles: the Years of Struggle, I was expecting just another earnest documentary about the labor movement. Boy, was I in for a surprise. Oh, there is plenty of history, and interesting history at that, but there is also great storytelling, a cast of characters that would make Dickens proud, vintage railroad footage from the time of steam, terrific music, and, most surprising and welcome of all, a good deal of comedy, both high and low. I found myself laughing as often as I found myself pondering. Needless to say, the history went down easy.
Miles of Smiles tells the story of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first black union to successfully win concessions in wage and working conditions from a major American corporation, the Pullman Palace Car Company. The Pullman Company was the creation of George Mortimer Pullman, as was the sleeping car that bore his name and constituted the company's primary product. Railroads leased the sleeping cars, and the men who manned them, from Pullman. Conductors on these passenger trains were all white, but the porters—who carried and stowed luggage, watched after children while their parents enjoyed the amenities of the club and parlor cars, cleaned ashtrays, cuspidors, bathrooms, bedrooms, and everything else, converted the cars' seating arrangements each night into berth beds, and then, as their passengers settled down to sleep in those wonderful travelling beds, the porters retired to the club car to spend the rest of the night polishing their passengers' shoes—these men were all black.
Initially organized in 1867 to capitalize on the nation's burgeoning passenger rail traffic, many of the Pullman Palace Car Company's first porters were former slaves. And, in a sense, they remained slaves. During the Jim Crow years and the depressions of the 1890s and 1930s, it was hard for African-American men to find jobs. A position with the Pullman Company offered steady employment, a considerable amount of respect in the African-American community, and the opportunity to travel and see the world. In return, the Pullman porter was expected to make do, even on long, cross-country trips, with two hours of sleep a night at best, accept whatever indignities his white passengers heaped upon him (passengers called all Pullman porters “George,” after the man who owned the car they worked in), and, most important, no matter the cost, they were expected to keep smiling for miles on end and regardless of travail.
Despite the demands of the work and the skill sets acquired by longtime porters, job security for the men was basically non-existent. The report of a bed improperly made, an imperfectly cleaned toilet, or a perceived lack of respect, could cost a porter his job. Pullman kept the men's wages low, claiming any tips the porters received would make up the difference between their pay and a living wage. Throughout the Great Depression, the average Pullman porter made $67 a month.
All of this, in combination with the monumental civil rights achievements of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (under the leadership of its founder, A. Philip Randolph), makes for fascinating history, but the real secret of the film's success is more immediate and human. “Miles of Smiles” was shot in 1983 when, thankfully, many Pullman porters were still alive and getting together regularly to tell tales and play cards. Watching the movie, it quickly becomes apparent that those that managed to survive and even thrive as Pullman porters, almost without exception, are possessed of one of the rarest and greatest of God's gifts: they never take themselves too seriously. It is this trait, combined with the men's extraordinary storytelling, that makes "Miles of Smiles" such a joy to watch. The porters' pride, their humility, their ability to withstand the worst the world could toss at them, makes one feel better about the human race at large. When the lights come back on at the conclusion of the film, you find yourself smiling—and you walk out of the theater with a bit of a bounce in your step.
As part of our community's ongoing celebration of the 200th anniversary of Frederick Douglass's birth, we will offer a free screening of Miles of Smiles in the Easton library on Monday, March 12, at 6:00 p.m. Dr. Melissa McLoud, the historian who performed the research for the film and helped produce it, will be on hand to answer questions and share her memories of the Pullman porters she met while making the movie. By way of full disclosure, I should point out that, in addition to being a brilliant historian with an unfortunate taste in men, Melissa McLoud is also my wife. Hope to see you there!
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