Economics or Racism: the Untold Story of Pullman Porters

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Faculty Member Wins Fellowship for Doctoral Dissertation from the American Philosophical Society

Francisca OyogoaEach year the nation’s oldest learned society, founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1743, honors one outstanding doctoral student with a John Hope Franklin Dissertation Fellowship. Francisca Oyogoa, professor of sociology and African-American studies, was awarded the Fellowship for her dissertation, "Do Employers Have a Race? Employers' Racial Ideology and the Marginalization of Black Male Workers in the Pullman Railroad Company 1858 – 1969.”

“What’s incredibly striking is that in the one hundred year span I studied, black men working for Pullman always had the same job. Throughout that entire period, they were hired exclusively as porters while being systematically denied entry into other positions within the company. Pullman is so important in African-American history: in 1920 it was the largest employer of black men in the entire country,” Oyogoa explains.

“Many people have heard of the Pullman porter, but the story has never been told from the lens of the people who were employing these legions of black workers. So I developed a theoretical framework for looking at how employers served as racial agents, acting as people who are motivated by the same sorts of racial prejudices as everyone else,” Oyogoa continues.

In the past, Oyogoa has conducted market research for large corporations, gaining knowledge of how huge companies like Pullman operate. So when she began reviewing the literature for her dissertation, she had some perspective about how employers behave. “Everyone who had written about the Pullman company acted as if the employers were purely rational economic agents acting solely to maximize profit,” she explains. “That seemed ridiculous to me. With the data I had, I was able to determine how much the employer’s racial ideology limited opportunity for black men in the company.”

Since joining Bard College at Simon’s Rock full time this year, Oyogoa has extended her research to also examine the black women who worked for Pullman. “These women speak to a complex story of opportunity tied to limitations. While in many cases they made more working for Pullman than they could have earned in other settings, they never had the chance to work as anything other than maids,” she says.

Oyogoa is offering students the opportunity to assist in conducting original research for her new projects. She is already working with sophomore Sophie Randall on an article they’re planning to submit to sociology and African-American studies journals and conferences.

Offering students the opportunity to engage with scholarship at an advanced level is one of the aspects of Simon’s Rock that professor Oyogoa, who herself started college at sixteen, truly enjoys. “I feel as if I’m kindred spirits with all the students in certain way—I had that desire to get out of high school and start college early and start learning, too,” she says.