Webster, Milton P.
Milton P. Webster
Aconsummate union organizer, Milton P. Webster worked through the Chicago Division of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP) in the interest of its members and their right to fair treatment. He protested the Pullman Company's long practice of low pay, long work hours, and harsh treatment of its porters, most of whom were African American. Later, he handled BSCP cases before the Railroad Adjustment Board and was chief negotiator of contracts with the railroad. His work with the BSCP leadership resulted in the American Federation of Labor's acceptance of that group as its bargaining agency. This was the first African American union to win a national contract as well as the first bargaining agreement won against Pullman. The charter with AFL also led to Webster's position as office holder on its international board.
- Born (exact date unknown)
- Becomes assistant bailiff in Chicago's municipal court
- Becomes ward leader for the Republican party in Chicago
- Begins relationship with A. Philip Randolph and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP)
- Elected first vice-president of the BSCP; announces forthcoming national labor conference in Chicago
- Pullman Company recognizes BSCP as bargaining unit for porters and maids
- President Franklin D. Roosevelt issues Executive Order No. 882, in the interest of jobs and for blacks; represents BSCP on the first Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC)
- Dies in Bal Harbor, Florida on February 24
Virtually nothing is known about the circumstances of Milton Webster's birth or about his early life. It is known that he was the son of a Tennessee barber. While still a young man, Webster left Clarksville, Tennessee and moved to Chicago where for eighteen years he worked as a Pullman porter. Although the number of his siblings is unknown, he had an older brother, D. P. Webster, who may have founded the black postal workers' protest group, the Phalanx Forum Club. With less than a ninth-grade education, Milton Webster had limited employment options. But Webster was determined to provide for his wife Elizabeth and their three children so that she could devote all of her energy to raising their son and daughters. In time he became frustrated with the Pullman Company and resigned from service. He also became interested in the work of political figures. At some point Webster's political patron, Bernard Snow, who was chief bailiff of the municipal court, helped Webster to study law privately. In 1924 and in need of employment to support himself and his family, he became assistant bailiff under Snow. In this patronage position, he became a successful political operative in Republican politics. He held the position until 1930 and also managed at least two large apartment buildings in Chicago. Although this was during the Great Depression, Webster was still able to separate himself from the Pullman Company and to earn enough money and have sufficient time for union opportunities that came to him. He also gave the union financial support. Webster was influential in Republican politics as early as 1925, when he became a ward leader among the party's black membership. In time, he was transformed from ward "heeler" to labor leader.
The Pullman Company Develops
Between 1868 and 1968, an African American attendant in service on the railroads was a common site. A peak decade for the American railroad system was the 1920s, when there were some 20,224 African Americans working as porters for the Pullman Company and as railroad personnel elsewhere. The history of the Pullman Company, however, provides fertile ground for the developments that would occur involving its black workers.
George Mortimer Pullman founded the Pullman Palace Car Company shortly after the Civil War. The manufacturing and operating firm built luxury railroad cars, equipped with service personnel for the affluent passengers traveling long distances. The company flourished, and by 1925 there were Pullman cars on practically all railroads in the country. Race conditions at the time dictated that blacks were placed in service jobs; for the most part, black men, who were right out of slavery or descendants of slaves, would be hired for the menial tasks, thus becoming the workers on these cars. Their role, however, became stereotypical, as they were often seen, and portrayed, as servants with a ready smile and open hand, and displaying a readiness for duty. They were treated as slaves who, according to A. Philip Randolph, gave long, devoted, patient and heroic service. They were the "fabric of the company." The company was callous and heartless; in its view, black porters had no manhood. Even one young white man who Randolph referred to as "some sixteen-year-old whipper snapper messenger boy" insulted these men, some of whom had been with the company for thirty to forty years. He was simply a porter with a hapless lot. And all of the porters came to be known simply as "George," in so-called "honor" of the company's founder, George Mortimer Pullman.
By 1925, the company was in its heyday and was also the nation's largest single employer of blacks. Several forward-thinking black men, however, took issue with the ill treatment of the race, particularly the Pullman porters.
The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters Emerges
In summer 1925, New York's black porters were persuaded that they needed a union. Something had to be done about the Pullman Company's treatment of its black porters, and leaders were needed to take them into arenas beyond the reach of the company's reprisals. Then a small group of porters held a number of secret meetings and worked out plans for founding a union. Their plans were formalized and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters was organized in the Elks Hall in the Harlem section of New York City on August 25, 1925. Later, A. Phillip Randolph was named general organizer of the union. Other officers were W. H. Des Verney, vice-president and assistant organizer; Roy Lancaster, secretary-treasurer; and Ashley Totten, assistant organizer. Their motto or password was "solidarity," which they called the key to freedom of the oppressed and exploited races and classes, and the group's sign was a clinched left fist with arm extended downward, denoting that justice and freedom will come only through a fight.
Randolph and Totten had difficulty persuading union men to work publicly for the union—as they would do as organizers—for the men feared retaliation from the Pullman Company if they did so. Some were apathetic, skeptical, and simply afraid. Soon they concluded that the company was trying to frighten them away, first by bringing in more blacks from the South who might be their replacement. This was warning enough for Randolph and Totten to find a strong leader whom the Pullman officials could not intimidate; hence, they located Milton P. Webster, who became the most notable of the district organizers. The Chicago area was the Pullman Company's most important district, its headquarters were there, and it employed more black porters than any other district. It ran cars in and out of the city to places throughout the country. Likewise, the Chicago area was important to the BSCP For twelve years it would house the brotherhood's most militant local who agitated against the company's anti-union stance. The persuasive Randolph was successful in getting Webster to take the job. In time, union leaders found organizers—all Pullman Porters—for its other divisions in such cities as St. Louis, Detroit, and Pittsburgh.
Webster's writing skills were poor at that time; in fact, when the union needed to communicate with its members in the Chicago district, A. Philip Randolph often composed messages on circulars and attributed the work to Webster. Apparently Webster worked on his shortcomings and by 1926 Randolph had what William Harris in Keeping the Faith called "justifiable confidence in his ability to communicate both orally and in writing." Webster had a close friendship with Oscar De Priest, one of Chicago's leading black politicians. His important political connections as well as the strong, personal friendships that he had among the porters with whom he had worked led to his becoming the second most important person in the BSCP. Despite his importance to the BSCP's success, Milton Webster was barely mentioned in published sources until 1977, when William H. Harris published Keeping the Faith and included good details of Webster's union career. Webster had been content to remain in Randolph's shadow, which may have helped him to remain relatively obscure.
Despite his shortcomings early on, Webster immediately had the porter's respect. When he headed the local membership drive, the response that he received was overwhelmingly positive. Even so, most local black leaders were unenthusiastic because they lacked confidence that the porters could, or should, challenge the Pullman Company. Then too, they saw the company's long record of hiring blacks and felt that the men should not "bite the hand that feeds you." The Pullman Company had endeared itself to religious leaders and black organizations as well. Neither the NAACP, the Urban League black religious hierarchy, nor the African American press supported the BSCP They were impressed when the Pullman Company donated $10,000 to the black YMCA, rented dormitories and meeting spaces in its facilities, and rented black churches as meeting sites for its Pullman Porters Benefit Association of America, a fraternal and death benefit society for blacks. Pullman accepted recommendations for employment from local black ministers and deposited at least $10,000 in the black-owed Binga State Bank. Some blacks held porters in high regard, especially since their salaries, as poor as they were, were a vast improvement over those that other blacks received. By now some of the porters were college graduates who were unable to find employment elsewhere. In all likelihood, however, these Pullman supporters were either unaware of, or unresponsive to, the poor treatment that their fathers, brothers, and sons received from their employer.
Since Webster had worked as a porter in his younger years, he knew well what was involved in a porter's work. He still had friends who were porters. This meant that he could enter certain circles with ease, where Randolph could not, or dare nor, tread. Because Webster had access to Chicago's political figures, he could perhaps use the friendships and connections to benefit the union. Oscar De Priest was one of these figures; and Webster was able to involve De Priest's friend, Robert L. Mays, in the union's efforts to organize Chicago's porters. By the end of 1925, however, Mays argued that the union should go before the Railroad Labor Board to have its cases heard (such as a demand for increased pay). Later he quit the union because he was at odds with Randolph and other leaders over this issue. He also condemned BSCP leadership and claimed the union's New York officials—including Randolph—exercised undue control over the union. Webster went on to become the BSCP's second most important leader due to his political connections as well as his ability to organize workers.
Division leaders faced mounting disgruntlement, some of the top division leaders threatened to quit, and the BSCP faced problems in recruiting members as well as sustaining itself. By 1926, however, BSCP's general office changed its attitude. On August 20, 1926, the New York office polled several district leaders for their attitude on wage-scale demands from members and the leaders themselves. After that, Randolph announced that a National Advisory Committee comprised of organizing committees from several districts would be the policymaking body and the New York crew would take a hands-off approach.
When this occurred, Randolph and other BSCP leaders around the country developed mutual respect as well as a friendship. This was especially important for the Webster-Randolph relationship that existed during mid-1926. The men were vastly different in personality and approach to issues, yet they complemented each other: Randolph was skilled in bringing in outside support, while Webster was an astute organizer, and was especially good for the Chicago district. Because they spent so much time together, some called the men "the gold dust twins." Thus, the union's progress lay squarely on the shoulders of these two leaders. Randolph was haughty and aloof, and left BSCP men feeling ill at ease around him. To the contrary, Webster was "down to earth" and approachable, unpretentious, direct, and gruff. Although at times they clashed, there was no doubt, however, that both thought that the porters must have a union and they worked diligently to accomplish their mutual goal and to set an example for black workers everywhere to follow. As they went about their work, Randolph took the porter's message to the public and functioned as moral leader for men in all ranks. Webster handled all day-to-day operations and strengthened union membership in Chicago's hostile environment.
Webster and Randolph became a dynamic speaking duo that American labor had never seen. According to Greg LeRoy, Randolph encouraged Webster to perfect his manner: he was "abrasive and booming, alternately abrupt and then flowing, tirades followed by asides." He was Randolph's "emcee" for forty years. When appearing before union members, Webster deliberately agitated the crowd and made them uneasy. After that, the eloquent Randolph appeared with his fine oratorical style that he had developed when he was a Shakespearean actor. According to Ely, he was "soothing" and "otherworldly," and like "a hell-fire Baptist preacher bringing on the Pope."
Webster became disillusioned with local Republicans and by 1927 spent less time in new political work and more in union activities. He knew also that there were "big shots" in the party who were racists as well as anti-BSCP, and he sought to interview Herbert Hoover, who was then Secretary of Commerce, to express his discontent over the Coolidge administration's anti-union stance. According to Greg LeRoy, when his attempts failed, Webster reasoned "that neither party is interested in the Negro. They are just interested in getting all the votes they can."
The BSCP and the Pullman Company remained at odds over a number of benefits for the porters. By 1928, Webster, Randolph, and other leaders met and decided to do whatever was needed to assist the union, including calling a strike against Pullman. On March 15, 1928, Randolph announced that the BSCP would ask its members to strike; it would occur on June 28, 1928. While Randolph actually wanted to avoid it, Webster wanted it to occur. Webster continued to support the strike and worked through the Citizens Committee that he had organized in Chicago in the interest of union workers. In his letter to Randolph dated March 27, 1928 and published in the The Black Worker, he noted: "I haven't been able to do much with this Citizens Committee. They seem to have all gotten cold feet since we commenced to talk strike. However, I plan to stage a big mass meeting on the 15th of April…. I am going to try to get the hardest boiled labor leaders in Chicago to speak in an effort to get the strike votes and raise funds for the strike."
He also wrote to Morris "Dad" Moore, who retired from the Chicago Division and founded the Oakland (California) Division. In his letter dated June 11, 1928 and published in The Black Worker, Webster explained why the strike was postponed: "It was done as a matter of strategy in the interest of all the men in the organization. The United States Mediation Board turned us down cold and their decision was so abrupt that it convinced us that we could expect no further cooperation from that body. Due to various legal actions, the strike never occurred, but the threat of it had caused the union some embarrassment and erroneously suggested some weaknesses in its leadership.
The brotherhood continued and called its first national convention in Chicago on September 9-15, 1929, adopted a constitution, and elected its first officers: Randolph, president; Webster, first vice-president; and Roy Lancaster, treasurer. The union barely existed now, for membership had declined after the Pullman Company suspended or fired all of those who voted for a strike. Much of the union's work went underground, both to protect union member's jobs and to avoid falling prey to "stool pigeons" who spied on meetings. To collect dues, agents visited barbershops, pool halls, cigar stores, and elsewhere, including member's private residences.
Now president of the Chicago Division of the BSCP, in December 1929 Webster announced the forthcoming national labor conference for Chicago, that would be held beginning January 26, 1930, extending for five days. It was under the auspices of the BSCP. At the time, critical problems existed in the employment industry for blacks; for example, there was industrial discrimination, wages were poor, employees worked long hours, and so on. To address these issues, BSCP invited all labor unions, religious organizations, Greek letter organizations, women's clubs, and other black groups that might have had an interest in race life to send one delegate to the conference. Quoted in the Chicago Defender for December 21, 1929, Webster said: "Race workers are the backbone of the Race, and upon their welfare and the advancement of labor depends the progress of all phases of life, whether religious, social, fraternal, civic or commercial. Hence the problems of the workers are of vital importance to all elements of the group and merit their cooperation and assistance in the efforts toward solution."
The NAACP finally became involved with the BSCP, and in the 1930s formally protested the AFL's policies on exclusion and discrimination. Representing the NAACP, noted attorney Charles Hamilton Houston protested at the 1934 AFL convention, for example. Webster and Randolph continued to introduce resolutions rejecting these policies to no avail.
The Walls Came Tumbling Down
The BSCP led a hard fight. As it fought to increase membership, it never attracted large numbers. In an effort to protect the porters from Pullman backlash, membership rolls were kept secret. Since the BSCP was established, it had fought long and vigorously for the most effective way to deal with the Pullman and its virtual monopoly on sleeping-car facilities across the county. The NAACP joined the BSCP in fighting the AFL's exclusionary and discriminatory practices during the 1930s and 1940s. Charles Hamilton Houston, who represented the NAACP, attended AFL's 1934 convention and protested its various forms of racial discrimination. As both groups sought a national charter from the AFL, the BSCP was refused in 1928 and again in 1934. Webster, Randolph, and other BSCP leaders continued their fight and struggled to keep the brotherhood alive. It was not until 1935, when the Franklin D. Roosevelt Administration insisted on protecting the rights of organized labor, that relief came. The administration outlawed company unions, and the Pullman Company finally recognized the BSCP as the bargaining unit for porters and maids. The victory may have actually been in making other black workers realize the value of solidarity and the importance of labor organizations. After the brotherhood received its international charter in 1937, Webster was elected a vice-president. He also was chief negotiator of contracts for the railroads.
When he was seven years old and lived next to an Illinois Central Railroad line, Webster saw firsthand a Pullman strike. Now he could feel a personal victory over his lifelong enemy. In a speech at the Chicago Historical Society taped around 1956, Webster commented on the white men that blacks envied on trains, men who had met the same success as the BSCP's victory: "They've had to organize and die and fight and sacrifice in order to get justice from other white men." Despite the BSCP's victory, it was not until after World War II that the barriers were penetrated in some of Pullman's operations; still some of the affiliates continued their old practices.
Between 1929 and 1935, several federal labor unions within the BSCP sent delegates to the American Federation of Labor conventions. Brotherhood delegates became representatives of an international union, begin-ning 1936. Webster had become vice-president of the organization and after 1936 collaborated with Randolph on introducing resolutions at AFL conventions. The two men knew the trade-union movement and acquitted themselves well when they spoke at the conventions, making their fellow delegates proud. Webster belonged to the Short Work Day Committee and was available to meet with members of the first international union of black workers. Notwithstanding the progress the BSCP had made, there was still work to be done. Randolph built on the union's platform and sought redress for a number of other racial issues. As a result of Randolph's call for a March on Washington on July1, 1941, in the interest of jobs in the National Defense, integration of the armed forces, abolition of Jim-Crow practices in government employment, and jobs in factories, on June 25, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order No. 8802 and on July 19, 1941 appointed the first Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC). Now that Randolph and the black masses had what they demanded, Randolph called off the strike. In addition to Webster as a representative of the BSCP, Roosevelt added to the committee the Louisville Courier's publisher Mark Ethridge as chair. Also added were Earl B. Dickerson, William Green, Philip Murray, and David Sarnoff. Webster held membership until the commission ceased to exist after World War II.
Webster, who lived at 8454 Vernon Street in Chicago, was involved in community life, having served as a Sunday school teacher. He held membership in the Phalanx Forum Club, the Labor Advisory Committee of the President's Committee on Equal Opportunity, and the Civil Rights Commission of the AFL-CIO. He was a lifelong Republican as well.
While attending the winter meeting of the AFL-CIO in Bal Harbor, Florida, Webster dined with A. Philip Randolph in the Americana Hotel. He collapsed shortly afterwards in the hotel corridor and was pronounced dead on arrival at St. Francis Hospital in Miami Beach, on February 24, 1965. According to his obituaries, he was survived only by his son Milton and two daughters, Jean and Rebecca; however, his wife Elizabeth was still living at that time. In Labor's Heritage, Greg LeRoy described Webster as "a stocky, profane, cigar chomping, bourbon sipping South Side Republican." His legacy, however, was his success as the "consummate organization man."
The Black Worker: A History from Colonial Times to the Present. Vol. V, The Era of Post-War Prosperity and the Great Depression, 1920–1936. Ed. Philip S. Foner and Ronald L. Lewis. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1981.
Brazeal, Brailsford R. The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters: Its Origin and Development. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1946.
Foner, Philip S. Organized Labor and the Black Worker, 1619–1981. 2nd ed. New York: International Publishers, 1982.
Harris, William H. Keeping the Faith: A. Philip Randolph, Milton P. Webster, and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, 1925–37. Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 1977.
Randolph, A. Philip. "The Pullman Company and the Pullman Porter." In The Black Worker: A History from Colonial Times to the Present. Vol. V, The Era of Post-War Prosperity and the Great Depression, 1920–1936. Ed. Philip S. Foner and Ronald L. Lewis. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1981.
LeRoy, Greg. "The Founding Heart of A. Philip Randolph's Union: Milton P. Webster and Chicago's Pullman Porters Organize, 1925–1937." Labor's Heritage 3 (July 1991): 22-43.
"M. P. Webster, Rail Porters Official, Dies." Chicago Tribune (February 25, 1965).
"Sleeping Car Porters to Hold Labor Confab." Chicago Defender (December 21, 1929).
"Records of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Series A: Holdings of the Chicago Historical Society and the Newberry Library, 1925–1969." University Publications of America. http://www.lexisnexis.com/academic/guides/african_american/bscp/bscp1.asp (Accessed September 8, 2005).
Records of the Chicago Division of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (1925–1969) are in the Newberry Library in Chicago and the Chicago Historical Society. Numerous photographs of the BSCP are also in the Chicago Historical Society Records. The BSCP records include letters between A. Philip Randolph and Milton Webster and cover the period before 1940, verbatim minutes of BSCP conventions, and speeches by Webster and others on the philosophy of African American trade unionism, problems with other unions, and other issues. Other materials (technically not BSCP records) include the Milton P. Webster FEPC Files, 1941–1946. They shed light on racial discrimination in the railroad industry and segregation in the workforce during the early 1940s. Records of the larger Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters are in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress.