Race and Technology

A blog about the intersection of race and technology.

Life on the Rails: Finding My Grandfather

John Baptist Ford, my paternal grandfather, passed away five years before my birth. For many years, I knew only two facts about him: he'd been a Pullman porter and one of the first Black men to speak at Dartmouth College at the beginning of the 20th century. In college, I dug into his history, finding one reference to the talk he'd given at Dartmouth. I recall it reminded me of an "up-from-your-bootstraps" speech by Booker T. Washington. Not that impressed, I put the speech and my grandfather aside.

Many years passed before I thought seriously of my grandfather again. This time, while researching a book about my father, I came across a high-resolution photograph of my grandfather on one of the major internet stock photo sites. Dressed in his Pullman porter's uniform, in the picture, he held my father. My aunt, my uncle, and my grandmother sat by his side. I immediately asked my sister if she'd ever seen it. She had not. It puzzled me, then, how that image landed on the site. So, I dug deeper, and the tale I uncovered helped me better understand not only my grandfather, but father, and also me.

My grandfather's story begins with his birth in South Carolina in 1886, and continues as a child picking cotton, who never attained more than a grade-school education. By seventeen, he still could not read nor write. He worked as a janitor, pot-washer, and chief cook at a high-school for Black students, in exchange for learning to read and to write. He left South Carolina with the "Great Migration" north, which brought many Blacks from the rural South, in search of better opportunities in northern cities. First he found work as a butler and a bellboy, then at 22 he became a porter's apprentice, cleaning train cars on his way to become a full-fledged Pullman porter. His first run as porter took him from New York City to San Francisco. He never looked back.

Many Whites called any Pullman porter George, a derisive name harkening back to slavery when male slaves were simply called by the first name of their masters, now referring specifically to George Mortimer Pullman. From his headquarters in Chicago, Pullman first hired newly freed slaves en masse shortly after Emancipation to fulfill his dream of creating a luxury railroad experience for White Americans, whom he believed would feel most comfortable being attended to by subservient Blacks in uniform.[1]

Along the track, a porter faced many challenges. They ran a gauntlet of racial insults and indignations from White passengers and crew. They worked exceptionally long hours away from their families, for exceptionally low wages. Pullman expected them to get by on tips. For many years, my grandfather worked the Winsted Express, which ran between New York City and Winsted, Connecticut. Though it placed him closer to his home, he still served the commuting needs of wealthy Whites who traveled between Connecticut and New York City, as the New York Times reported:

Every night Ford sleeps on his car at Winsted. At 6:45 in the morning he starts for New York, where he arrives at 10:23. If he is lucky he gets home by 11:30. Four hours with his family and he leaves again, to take his car back to Winsted on the 4:25. Such is his life—a pretty useful one, according to those who have occasion to travel between New York and stations on the New Haven line.[2]

Within the Black community, Pullman porters, like my grandfather, retained a vaunted position of admiration and respect. Many Pullman porters were highly educated, even if they were not highly respected by those for whom they worked and served. By some estimates, 30 percent of Black medical school graduates first served as Pullman porters.[3] In 1924, my grandfather told the New York Times, "I was studying to be a minister, though I'm past that now. . . . I know a couple of doctors—brothers—who stayed ten years in the service [as Pullman porters] after they'd taken their degrees. They were saving money all the time. When they'd got enough they set up in practice."[4]

With Pullman porters, the informal news gathering begun by Black seamen decades earlier became a formal relationship with Black newspapers throughout the country. As my grandfather told Collier's Weekly in 1924, Pullman porters served as the news reporters of their day:

I have carried many of the big men of this country. They are just like other people. Mr. John D. Rockefeller, senior, was just a nice old man. Mr. J. Pierpont Morgan just a quiet gentleman. Former [New York State] Governor Whitman, the same. If some one hadn't told me President Coolidge was in my car, I would never have known it.[5]

Pullman porters had unfettered and unparalleled access to presidents, politicians, tycoons, sports stars, and celebrities, and prominent Black newspapers capitalized on the information this access provided. The Chicago Defender, Pittsburgh Courier,and New York Age—several prominent Black newspapers of the early twentieth century—built a robust business around Pullman porters who provided daily information and occasionally scoops, wrote columns, and even surreptitiously delivered newspapers by tossing them off their trains at designated pickup spots in Black communities.[6]

Pullman porters symbolized the subservience of Black men needed to survive slavery and Jim Crow, and that White Americans desired, but they also represented a New Negro, to use a term popularized by Alain Locke, a writer and philosopher of the Harlem Renaissance. Having fought and died to save democracy in World War I, Black American soldiers returned to a country that had not changed much with regard to race relations. Black Americans who bled on the battlefields of France were still lynched in the cotton fields of the South. Educational, political, economic, and social opportunities were still placed beyond their reach. So, in 1919, when White American mobs attacked Black communities in more than two dozen cities across the United States, Black Americans fought back.[7]

A Pullman porter first broke the story of a White lynch mob attacking a Black community in Platte, Nebraska, driving hundreds of Black men, women, and children from their homes. As a result of this early news, reported by the porter to a local branch of the NAACP, the organization contacted the governor, the mob's advance was stopped, and the Black community was allowed to return safely home.[8]

Famed Black poet and author Claude McKay, also a member of the Harlem Renaissance, captured the essence of this new militancy for social justice in his 1919 poem "If We Must Die," in which he exhorted Blacks to "face the murderous, cowardly pack, pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!"[9] McKay, a former Pullman porter, wrote his first book, Home to Harlem, during his breaks along the rails.[10]

Pullman porters tapped A. Philip Randolph to lead them in forming the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP), a union targeting higher wages and better working conditions for the men. Despite moles planted by the Pullman company at organizing meetings, in 1925 Randolph successfully formed the BSCP, the first predominantly Black labor union. Although the BSCP never enrolled a majority of Pullman porters as members and never received full recognition by the American Federation of Labor (AFL), it won its first labor contract with the Pullman company in 1937.

The union served for many years as a training ground for future Black leaders. Randolph spearheaded the movement to desegregate the US military and organized the first March on Washington in 1941. E. D. Nixon, while still working as a Pullman porter, masterminded the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott, which vaulted Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. to fame. Malcolm X, a Pullman dinner car waiter, wrote about his observations of race relationships between Pullman porters and customers on trains.[11] Gordon Parks, the first Black photojournalist for Life magazine, found a magazine with Dust Bowl images of poor women and children while working as a Pullman porter, which spurred him on to a legendary career in photography and film-making.

Count my grandfather, John B. Ford, also among the ranks of Pullman "firsts," even though he was not a union man. In February 1924, my grandfather met Robert Malcolm Keir, PhD, a professor of economics at Dartmouth College's famed Amos Tuck business school. Collier's Weekly reported my grandfather's account of what happened next:

On one of my trips into New York a gentleman got talking to me, as many do. We talked about life and death, what they meant to us, and at New York he said he would see me again. When he did see me again I was his guest, through the courtesy of the Pullman management, at Dartmouth College. . . . I wasn't nervous because I didn't have anything to say but what I knew, and I thought what I might say might help someone else. I was made to feel among friends, although the students did fire a lot of questions at me.[12]

Clearly impressed by this sophisticated Black porter who lacked a formal education, Keir invited my grandfather to give three lectures to his Economics 22 class at Dartmouth on March 25, 1924. His first lecture that day was so successful that his second pulled students and professors away from classes throughout the campus to fill a standing-room-only hall.

"Dartmouth to hear parlor car porter: John Baptist Ford, Negro, Will Give Lecture Tomorrow to Transportation Class," a March 24, 1924, New York Times headline read. Two days later, the paper printed the story, "Pullman porter lectures: Ford Makes a Hit in an Address to Students at Dartmouth." The Times continued to report on my grandfather in its April 12th issue of that year. "Pullman porter wins as college lecturer; John Baptist Ford, Who Made Four Hundred Dartmouth Students Look at His Profession with New Eyes, Talks of Traveling Public."

My grandfather was one of the few Black men to speak at Dartmouth since Booker T. Washington. In the spring and summer of 1924, reports of his lectures appeared in the pages of more than forty newspapers around the country—the New York Age, the Pittsburgh Courier, the Detroit Free Press, and the Portsmouth Herald, to name a few.

In searching for information about my grandfather, I came across a brief mention of an article on him in Collier's Magazine. Collier's, a leading magazine of the early twentieth century, featured fiction writers like Ray Bradbury, Roald Dahl, and Kurt Vonnegut; and muckraking journalism that forced changes in child labor laws, slum clearance policies, and women's rights to vote. It also ran special interest stories like one on my grandfather.

I finally found a bound-copy of July 5, 1924 issue of Collier's at the Seattle Public Library, thumbed through the pages with some anticipation. "This Ford's a Pullman Porter" read the title of a feature article on the cotton-picker-turned-college-lecturer. "We all know Henry Ford, or a lot about him," it began, "We are all going to know John Baptist Ford, or a lot about him. Ford represents the new order in his race."[13]

In his many interviews, my grandfather never failed to mention his family, insisting that while he may have been invited to speak at a prestigious university, all of his children would be graduating from one. My aunt Ruth Ford was one of the first Black women to graduate from Hunter College, Phi Betta Kappa, in the late 1920s. My father, John Stanley Ford, graduated from the City University of New York in the late 1940s, then with an MBA from New York University in the early 1950s.

My grandfather, who worked as a Pullman porter, deferred his dreams of becoming a minister, or perhaps a doctor. But he lived just long enough to see his son, my father, achieve dreams of him own. My grandfather had been invited by Malcolm Keir to become one of the few Black men to lecture at Dartmouth in 1924. My father was invited by Thomas J. Watson, to become the first Black software engineer in America, hired by IBM in 1947.


An adapted excerpt from Think Black: A Memoir, by Clyde W. Ford, copyright 2019. Reprinted with permission from Amistad, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers.

[1] Allissa V. Richardson, "The Platform: How Pullman Porters Used Railways to Engage in Networked Journalism," Journalism Studies, 17, no. 4 (2016): 398–414, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/1461670X.2015.1110498 .

[2] Robert L. Duffus, "Pullman Porter Wins as College Lecturer," New York Times, April 23, 1924, 188.

[3] Richardson, "The Platform," 403.

[4] Duffus, "Pullman Porter Wins as College Lecturer."

[5] Earl Chapin May, "This Ford's a Pullman Porter," Collier's Weekly, July 5, 1924, 31.

[6] Richardson, "The Platform," 404–5.

[7] Cameron McWhirter, Red Summer: The Summer of 1919 and the Awakening of Black America (New York: Henry Holt, 2011).

[8] Richardson, "The Platform," 405.

[9] Claude McKay, "If We Must Die," Liberator, July 1919, 21.

[10] Richardson, "The Platform," 409.

[11] Malcolm X, The Autobiography of Malcolm X (New York: Random House, 1964), 82.

[12] May, "This Ford's a Pullman Porter," 8.

[13] May, "This Ford's a Pullman Porter," 8.

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Comments 1

Guest - Frances Prowse on Sunday, 18 August 2019 01:28

Hi Clive so interesting to read about your grandfather thanks for sharing.

Hi Clive so interesting to read about your grandfather thanks for sharing.
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Wednesday, 11 December 2019