Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP)

views updated


Pullman porters worked exclusively on railroad cars called Pullman sleeping cars, the brain-child of George Mortimer Pullman and the major means of transportation used by the wealthy to travel long distances before the era of air travel. George Pullman chose recently freed black men for the position of porter on his sleeping cars in order to evoke the comfort and style slaves had provided for the gentry in the antebellum South. By the 1920s, the Pullman porter was perhaps the most recognized African American in white America, and the Pullman Company employed approximately twelve thousand African Americans, making it the largest private employer of black men in the United States. In 1925 a group of porters, fed up with long hours, low pay, and the servile demeanor demanded by the Pullman Company, formed the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP) in New York City, where it enjoyed a measure of success.

The BSCP's campaign came to a halt when it reached Chicago, headquarters of the powerful, anti-union Pullman Company and home to more than a third of Pullman porters. Through the years Pullman executives had cultivated close relationships with black leaders by pouring money into institutions in black Chicago and promoting the image of Pullman as a friend not just of workers, but the entire community. As a result, the majority of black leaders opposed the BSCP. Utilizing a community-based strategy, the BSCP set out to win the hearts and minds of ministers, the press, and politicians who did not appreciate the role labor unions could play in the larger black freedom struggle. By 1929, as significant numbers of black leaders began supporting the BSCP and its organizing networks, a pro-labor perspective was taking shape in black Chicago. The pro-labor stance increased the union's credibility in the eyes of the community and increased membership in the union. Shortly thereafter, fallout from the Depression, which included a severe decline in travelers, fewer jobs for porters, fewer tips for working porters, and fear associated with joining a union during hard times, contributed to a decline in BSCP membership. From a high of 7,300 members in 1927, BSCP membership had dropped to 658 by 1933. While some observers decreed that the BSCP had died, union porters dubbed the 1929 to 1933 period as the "dark days."

The union's fate changed through its relationship with the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the coming of New Deal labor laws. The AFL, which granted federal charters to thirteen BSCP locals in 1929, provided very little financial assistance, but gave the BSCP a platform from which to advance its call for greater economic opportunity for all black workers. Though the BSCP was reduced to a skeleton crew, the Brotherhood carried the gospel of unionism deep into the black community during the dark days by forging cross-class alliances with other groups challenging the racial status quo. Simultaneously, the AFL continued to support racist unions while hundreds of thousands of black workers in steel, meatpacking, and autos were poised for organization.

Questions related to organizing black industrial workers erupted at the 1935 AFL convention when its leadership, refusing to endorse industrial unionism, set the stage for the emergence of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). Although the BSCP never left the AFL, the strength it had gained within the black community by 1935 pushed the AFL to grant the BSCP an international charter, even as the AFL voted to sustain union color bars against thousands of other black workers.

The BSCP's destiny was also altered by favorable legislation promoted by the federal government. The Amended Railway Labor Act of 1934 guaranteed railroad workers the legal right of collective bargaining, placing the National Mediation Board at the service of the union during elections. Finally, the Brotherhood gained recognition at the national level as the voice of all black workers when A. Philip Randolph, head of the BSCP, became president of the National Negro Congress in 1936. In 1937, the BSCP signed a historic labor contract with the giant Pullman Company, marking the first time representatives from a major American corporation negotiated a labor contract with a union of black workers. But the larger significance of the BSCP's community organizing during the Great Depression lay in popularizing unions, thus providing an important foundation for widespread unionization of black workers.



Anderson, Jervis. A. Philip Randolph: A Biographical Portrait. 1973.

Arnesen, Eric. Brotherhoods of Color: Black Railroad Workers and the Struggle for Equality. 2001.

Bates, Beth Tompkins. "A New Crowd Challenges the Agenda of the Old Guard in the NAACP, 1933–1945." American Historical Review 102, no. 2 (1997): 340–377.

Bates, Beth Tompkins. Pullman Porters and the Rise of Protest Politics in Black America, 1925–1945. 2001.

Brazeal, Brailsford Reese. The Brotherhood of Sleeping CarPorters: Its Origin and Development. 1946.

Harris, William H. Keeping the Faith: A. Philip Randolph,Milton P. Webster, and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, 1925–1937. 1977.

Beth Tompkins Bates

About this article

Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP)

Updated About content Print Article