In 1864 President Lincoln’s son Robert Todd slipped off a platform and was almost flattened by an oncoming sleeper train. At the last moment a man grabbed him by his collar and pulled him to safety. Robert Todd recognized his savior as the famous Shakespearean actor Edwin Booth. A year later Edwin’s brother John Wilkes killed Abraham Lincoln in Ford’s Theatre.
President Lincoln’s body was transported back to his home, Springfield, Illinois, on a modified train, stopping in 11 cities along the way, where public viewings and remarks were arranged. Along with eulogies for the slain president, newspapers ran stories on the train itself because a new, larger, more elegant sleeping car was included. A Pullman sleeper car. For more than a century after the company’s founding by the industrialist George Pullman in 1859, in large part because of the publicity from Lincoln’s funeral train, “Pullman” was a household name, synonymous with “excellence.” And after George Pullman died, in 1887, Robert Todd Lincoln took his place as the president of the Pullman Palace Car Co.
After the Civil War, George Pullman hired ex-slaves to work on his trains as porters, employing thousands of African-Americans, more than any other company in the country. Many of the ex-slaves were schooled in service in the homes on Southern plantations, and George Pullman, employing his business guile, knew they’d accept next to nothing in pay. Tough working conditions and long hours were standard — practices Robert Todd continued during his tenure, exploiting many of the very men his father fought to free. In 1925, with the help of the labor activist A. Philip Randolph, the porters organized the first all-black union, the Brotherhood of the Sleeping Car Porters.