Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters
Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters
United States 1925
Meeting secretly on the night of 25 August 1925 in the Elks Lodge on 129th Street in New York City's Harlem, 500 Pullman porters organized the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP), which was to become the first successful African American labor union. The major goals of the newfound union were to win higher wages and shorter working hours and to draw support away from a company union called the Employee Representation Plan (ERP), led by blacks handpicked by the Pullman Company, the porters' employer. In its infancy, the BSCP had a difficult time winning support among the rank and file of Pullman porters, many of whom saw little difference between BSCP and the company union, besides which they were reluctant to risk incurring the company's wrath by organizing. Slowly but surely the new union grew, but winning recognition from the Pullman Company was slow in coming. Finally, on 25 August 1937, a full 12 years after its founding, the BSCP was recognized as the official union of the Pullman porters.
- 1910: Neon lighting is introduced.
- 1915: A German submarine sinks the Lusitania, killing 1,195, including 128 U.S. citizens. Theretofore, many Americans had been sympathetic toward Germany, but the incident begins to turn the tide of U.S. sentiment toward the Allies.
- 1920: Bolsheviks eliminate the last of their opponents, bringing an end to the Russian Civil War. By then, foreign troops, representing a dozen nations that opposed the communists, have long since returned home.
- 1922: Inspired by the Bolsheviks' example of imposing revolution by means of a coup, Benito Mussolini leads his blackshirts in an October "March on Rome" and forms a new fascist government.
- 1923: Conditions in Germany worsen as inflation skyrockets and France, attempting to collect on coal deliveries promised at Versailles, marches into the Ruhr basin. In November an obscure political group known as the National Socialist German Workers' Party attempts to stage a coup, or putsch, in a Munich beer hall. The revolt fails, and in 1924 the party's leader, Adolf Hitler, will receive a prison sentence of five years. He will only serve nine months, however, and the incident will serve to attract attention for him and his party, known as the Nazis.
- 1925: Wyoming Democrat Nellie Tayloe Ross becomes the first woman governor elected in the United States.
- 1925: European leaders attempt to secure the peace at the Lo carno Conference, which guarantees the boundaries between France and Germany, and Belgium and Germany.
- 1925: In Tennessee, John T. Scopes is fined for teaching evolution in a public school. There follows a highly publicized trial at which famed attorney Clarence Darrow represents the defense, while the aging Democratic populist William Jennings Bryan argues for the state. The "Scopes Monkey Trial" symbolizes a widening divisions between rural and urban America, and though the court decides in favor of the state, it is clear that the his torical tide is turning against the old agrarian order symbolized by Bryan—who dies during the trial.
- 1925: Released from Landsberg Prison, Adolf Hitler is a national celebrity, widely regarded as an emerging statesman who offers genuine solutions to Germany's problems. This year, he publishes the first volume of Mein Kampf (My Struggle), which he dictated in prison to trusted confederate Rudolf Hess. The second and final volume of Hitler's opus, a mixture of autobiography, "history," and racial rant, will appear two years later.
- 1928: Sixty-five nations sign the Kellogg-Briand Pact, outlawing war.
- 1930: Naval disarmament treaty is signed by the United States, Great Britain, France, Italy, and Japan.
- 1935: Italians invade Ethiopia, and the response by the League of Nations—which imposes sanctions but otherwise fails to act—reveals the impotence of that organization.
Event and Its Context
On a balmy evening in late August 1925, some 500 Pullman porters secretly gathered in a Harlem Elks Lodge. There the men, seeking a way to win higher wages and shorter working hours, founded the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP). The establishment of the union, a goal of the porters since the early years of the twentieth century, was just the beginning of their struggle to bring their employer, the Pullman Company, to the bargaining table. Fully 12 years would pass before the BSCP was able to win Pullman's recognition as the porters' official labor union.
The Pullman Palace Car Company
Founded in 1867 by George Mortimer Pullman, the Pullman Palace Car Company was created to build and operate luxury sleeping cars (under contract to the railroads) to serve well-heeled passengers who routinely traveled long distances on the nation's railways. To meet the needs of their affluent clientele, the company from the outset hired black porters in the belief that the legacy of slavery ensured that blacks as a group would provide the desired degree of subservience as well as a willingness to work long hours for low wages.
In the early years of Pullman sleeping car service, porters fulfilled the company's vision of gracious service: warmly receiving passengers, transporting their luggage to their quarters, making up beds, serving beverages and food, and generally making themselves available at all hours of the day or night to meet passengers' needs. So well did the porters do their jobs that they became known as the "Ambassadors of Hospitality." However, by the 1920s, with more than half a century separating porters from the end of slavery, their willingness to suffer the job's long hours and low wages in silence had grown very thin indeed.
Poor Working Conditions for Porters
Although Pullman porters were still counted among the elite of black labor, thanks to the assurance of steady employment and extensive travel experience, in time porters grew increasingly unhappy with their lot in life. They came to believe that, as Americans, they had the right to live and work on an equal basis with white Americans. The establishment of a company-sanctioned union, called the Employee Representation Plan (ERP), did little to improve life for the porters, for most of its leaders had been handpicked by the Pullman Company. To survive and support their families, most porters relied on tips from passengers, which typically totaled more than their monthly pay from Pullman. Porters' smiles and gracious treatment of sleeping car passengers belied their deplorable working conditions: Hours were long with no overtime, and wages were low.
A. Philip Randolph Selected to Lead the BSCP
A critical element in the eventual success of the BSCP was the porters' selection of A. Philip Randolph to lead the union. Son of a Methodist minister and born in Crescent City, Florida, Randolph had moved to Harlem in 1911. With Chandler Owen, Randolph founded an employment agency, which he used as a vehicle to help organize black workers. Shortly after the United States entered World War I in 1917, Randolph and Owen began publishing a magazine, The Messenger, which called for more positions for blacks in the armed forces and the war industry. Randolph was an inspired choice for the porters since he was not a porter himself and was thus immune from the Pullman Company's threat of firing. For his part, Randolph found himself drawn to the porters' cause. He began educating them about the value of trade unionism and the basics of collective bargaining.
It is impossible to consider seriously the porters' struggle for better working conditions and pay without looking more closely at the "New Negro" movement, of which Randolph was a leading proponent. Upon his arrival in Harlem in 1911, Randolph was dismayed at the widespread lack of self-reliance and independence from white control among African Americans. He was particularly critical of black leaders who were a part of what he called the Old Crowd, "subsidized by the Old Crowd of white Americans—a group which viciously opposes every demand made by organized labor for an opportunity to live a better life." As editor of The Messenger, Randolph said blacks badly needed both new tactics and new leaders if they were to claim their rightful place in American society. In Randolph's view, one of the greatest obstacles to winning equal economic opportunity for black workers was the reluctance of white Americans to recognize the moral equality of African Americans.
Slow Growth of the BSCP
Outside of the hard-core porters who had spearheaded formation of the BSCP, the majority of porters were hesitant to join the newly founded union. For many it was hard to see any real difference between the BSCP and the company union, while others feared company reprisals if they agitated for higher pay and better working conditions. For the average porter, the choice between steady—if low—pay and no pay at all was not a hard one. Also giving many porters pause was the black community's goodwill toward the Pullman Company, fueled largely by the company's contributions to black churches.
As president of the BSCP, Randolph was headquartered in New York City, where he was assisted by Ashley Totten and Benjamin McLauren. Outside New York his main lieutenants were Milton P. Webster in Chicago, Illinois, C. L. Dellums in Oakland, California, and E. J. Bradley in St. Louis, Missouri. The union's leaders encountered considerable resistance from porters who were fearful of losing their jobs. The company, fighting the new union with all its resources, was even successful in pressing some porters into spying on the union's strategy sessions. These spies attended meetings and then reported back to the company on what they had seen and heard.
One early recruit to the BSCP was E. D. Nixon, Sr., an Alabama-born sleeping car porter who first heard Randolph speak at a local YWCA in St. Louis. Impressed by Randolph's ambitious goals for the newly formed union, Nixon contributed a dollar to its cause. Shortly thereafter Nixon was summoned by his manager and threatened with firing for having attended the St. Louis meeting. He calmly informed his manager that he not only had attended the meeting but had joined the union as well and would sue the Pullman Company if the threats continued. In later years Nixon became a civil rights activist, playing a major role in the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott in the mid-1950s.
Attempts to Increase Wages for Porters
Despite the misgivings of most porters, membership in the BSCP slowly but surely increased. Recognizing the threat posed by the gradually strengthening union, the Pullman Company pulled out all stops in its attempts to undermine the BSCP, launching a wide variety of retaliatory measures, including firings, beatings, and frame-ups. As leader of the BSCP, Randolph used his own bag of tricks to help force the company to the bargaining table. In 1926 he invoked the Watson-Parker Railway Labor Act as a justification for arbitration under the supervision of the Federal Board of Mediation. Although the board recommended arbitration, the company refused to participate, and the effort came to naught. Randolph next sought to get through to the company by attacking porters' reliance on tips to survive. In 1927 he pressed the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) to outlaw tipping in interstate travel. Such a ban would have forced Pullman to increase wages, but in the end the ICC decided that it lacked jurisdiction for such a ruling.
Left with few other alternatives, Randolph called for a strike by the BSCP in 1928. But support among porters for such a work stoppage simply wasn't there. Many feared that other blacks would rush in to fill their jobs in the event of a strike. Randolph also learned through American Federation of Labor (AFL) president William Green that Pullman was rumored to have lined up nearly 5,000 Filipinos to replace striking BSCP members. In the face of this threat, Randolph postponed the strike.
Despite his earlier opposition to the AFL's craft-union stance, Randolph in 1928 applied for an international charter from the labor organization to strengthen BSCP's bargaining position. The AFL turned down the union's bid for an international charter, granting federal charters to individual BSCP locals instead. Although unhappy with the AFL's decision, Randolph and other BSCP officials realized they needed the support of the national labor organization and took what they could get.
Prohibition of Company Unions
After the BSCP's threatened strike of 1928 was aborted, membership in the union dropped sharply. For a time it even appeared that the union would cease to exist. However, the enactment of more favorable labor legislation under President Franklin D. Roosevelt helped to keep the BSCP from extinction. Particularly helpful was passage of the amended Railway Act of 1934, which prohibited company unions. The new legislation spelled the end of the ERP, but the Pullman Company simply responded by replacing the ERP with the Pullman Porters and Maids Protective Association, changing the situation for porters very little, if at all.
Union Receives International Charter from AFL
In 1935 the AFL finally granted the BSCP the international charter it had first sought in 1928. The union officially received the charter at the AFL's convention, which saw a number of other momentous developments. Since the AFL's convention in 1932, Randolph had become increasingly outspoken in his attacks on racism within the labor federation, focusing in particular on federal unions designed for blacks only. He lashed out against racism again at the 1935 convention and had the first of many floor fights with AFL leadership over the issue of discrimination in affiliate unions.
Conflict Within the AFL
The convention also witnessed a fateful clash between the union's mainstream leadership and a dissident group led by John L. Lewis of the United Mine Workers of America. Lewis's group believed strongly that workers should be organized by industry, while the AFL's leadership wanted the unions organized by craft. A heated debate over the issue at the 1935 convention erupted into a fistfight on the convention floor between Lewis and "Big Bill" Hutcheson of the carpenters' union. Lewis won the battle but lost the war. Shortly after the donnybrook, AFL leaders voted to expel industrial unions from the labor federation.
After his expulsion from the AFL, Lewis led industrial unions in the formation of the rival Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), an umbrella group for unions organized by industry. Although Randolph had long favored industrial unions, he chose to keep the BSCP within the AFL fold, saying he felt it better positioned the union to fight for equality. Over time competition from the CIO forced the AFL to moderate its stand on racial equality. However, for Randolph and his lieutenants, the AFL's failure to move more quickly on this issue eventually led them to pull the union out of the labor federation in 1938 and join the CIO. When the two national labor organizations finally resolved their differences and merged in 1955 to form the AFL-CIO, Randolph was made a vice president and member of the combined organization's executive council. He was instrumental in persuading the labor organization to throw its support behind the growing movement for civil rights. Still not satisfied that the AFL-CIO was doing all it could do to combat discrimination, Randolph and other black labor leaders in 1960 formed the Negro American Labor Council, for which Randolph served as president from 1960 until 1966.
BSCP Recognized as Official Union for Porters
Twelve years to the day after the union's formation, the BSCP achieved victory in its long struggle to win recognition from the Pullman Company as the official union of its porters. On 25 August 1937 the union and company signed a contract that guaranteed porters improved working conditions and higher pay. This was just the first in a series of contracts negotiated by BSCP over the next few decades. In addition to its work on behalf of porters, the union contributed both its labor and financial support to the growing movement for racial equality, in which Randolph played a central role.
Role of the BSCP in the Civil Rights Movement
With Randolph at its helm, the BSCP played a major role in the civil rights movement throughout the mid-twentieth century. The union-sponsored March on Washington in 1941 was organized to protest governmental hiring practices that excluded blacks from federal employment and federal contracts. It was this type of racial discrimination, Randolph contended, that accounted for the economic disparities between the country's whites and blacks. With this in mind, he urged African Americans from around the country to march on Washington to demand jobs and freedom. The payoff for Randolph's strategy was not long in coming. In June 1941 President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802, banning discrimination in hiring by the federal government and defense contractors. Even more impressive was the 1963 March on Washington. Randolph tapped civil rights activist Bayard Rustin as organizer for the march, which successfully—and peacefully—brought together disparate elements of the movement for racial equality. More than a quarter-million people attended the massive 28 August 1963 march, which is perhaps best remembered for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s stirring "I Have a Dream" speech. Most importantly, the march helped pressure Congress to pass landmark civil rights legislation.
Plagued by ill health in the latter half of the 1960s, Randolph in 1968 stepped down as president of the BSCP and retired from public life. He was succeeded as president by C. L. Dellums, based in Oakland, California, who had long served as the union's vice president. Randolph died in New York City in 1979. The union, acknowledging the decline of the American railroad industry, in 1978 merged with the Brotherhood of Railway and Airline Clerks.
Dellums, C. L. (1900-1989): A native of Corsicana, Texas, Dellums moved to California in search of better job opportunities. He was eventually hired as a sleeping car porter and joined with A. Philip Randolph in helping to organize the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in the mid-1920s. Dellums served for a number of years as a vice president of the union, and he took over as president in 1968 after Randolph stepped down.
Nixon, E. D., Sr. (1899-1987): Nixon, born in Montgomery, Alabama, worked briefly as a baggage handler before he was hired as a sleeping car porter. Impressed with a speech by A. Philip Randolph, he was an early recruit to the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and headed one of the union's first locals. A dedicated civil rights activist, Nixon played a major role in the Montgomery bus boycott of the mid-1950s.
Randolph, Asa Philip (1889-1979): Randolph worked to organize African American workers, founding a magazine in 1917, The Messenger, which called for more jobs for blacks in the armed forces and the defense industry. In the 1920s he was persuaded to help organize Pullman sleeping car porters, who sought shorter hours and higher pay. As a result, he helped found the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first successful African American labor union, which he served as president from 1925 until 1968.
Webster, Milton P. (?-1965): A former sleeping car porter, Webster fought throughout his career to end racial discrimination in organized labor in general and within the defense industry in particular. He played a key role in the early efforts to organize the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and in 1925 was named the union's first international vice president. He served as a leader of the BSCP until his death in 1965.
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"Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters." In Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History, edited by Jack Salzman, David Lionel Smith, and Cornel West. New York: Macmillan, 1996.
"E. D. Nixon, Sr." In Notable Black American Men, edited by Jessie Carney Smith. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1998.
The Evolution and History of the Union. A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum [cited 22 October 2002]. <http://aphiliprandolphmuseum.com/evo_history4.html>.
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Records of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. SeriesA: Holdings of the Chicago Historical Society and the Newberry Library, 1925-1969 [cited 22 October 2002]. <http://www.lexisnexis.com/academic/guides/African_American/bscp/bscp3.htm>.
Chateauvert, Melinda. Marching Together: Women of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998.
Harris, William Hamilton. Keeping the Faith: A. Philip Randolph, Milton P. Webster, and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, 1925-1937. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1977.
McKissack, Pat and Frederick McKissack. A Long Hard Journey: The Story of the Pullman Porter. New York: Walker, 1989.
Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters
Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters
The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP), organized in secret on August 25, 1925, became the first successful African-American labor union. From its inception in 1867, the Pullman Company had employed black porters because company officials believed their subservience could be depended upon and because they would work for low wages. Pullman thereby created an occupation over which African Americans had a monopoly. While steady employment and travel experience made porters the elite of black labor, they were not unionized and were often exploited and underpaid. Capitalizing on the fact that he was not a porter and hence could not be fired, socialist journalist A. Philip Randolph seized on the porters' complaints, educated them about collective bargaining and the value of trade unionism, and began organizing them in 1925. The question of unionization to the average porter, however, meant a choice between steady, albeit low, pay and reprisals by the company, so organizing had to be carried on covertly and employees' wives were often utilized for the job. Loyal assistants, such as Milton P. Webster in Chicago, Ashley Totten and Benjamin McLauren in New York, C. L. Dellums in Oakland, and E. J. Bradley in St. Louis, took care of the daily details and organizing while Randolph obtained outside publicity and funding.
Porters had legitimate complaints, working long hours for little pay. They made the railroad car ready, assisted with luggage, waited on passengers, converted seats into beds that they then made up, polished shoes, and remained on call twenty-four hours a day. Nevertheless, because they had been inculcated with the idea of company benevolence, and because of their fear of reprisal, most porters were reluctant to jeopardize their jobs by joining the union. Many did not understand the difference between the company union, the Employee Representation Plan (ERP), and a trade union like the BSCP.
Still, despite obstacles, BSCP membership increased, and Pullman attempted to undermine its success with a series of retaliatory measures, including frame-ups, beatings, and firings. The company had previously dealt with labor unions, but now resisted bargaining with African Americans as equals. Company propaganda identified Pullman as a benefactor of African Americans, which led many prominent blacks to oppose the BSCP. Organized labor was anathema to others because they believed, with justification, that black workers were discriminated against by white unions.
Although initially opposed to its craft-union stance, Randolph began taking a more conciliatory tone toward the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in his writings as early as 1923. After he began organizing the porters, Randolph continually sought the advice of William Green, head of the AFL. The BSCP first applied for an international charter from the AFL in 1928. Because of jurisdictional disputes with white unions, most likely prompted by racism, the AFL refused the international charter, granting instead federal charters to individual locals. Brotherhood officials were unhappy with federal status, but the weak BSCP needed the support of the AFL. For his part, Green, concerned about communist infiltration of black labor, considered the BSCP an acceptable alternative, not only to communism but also to masses of African-American laborers remaining outside the federation, where they acted as potential strikebreakers.
Realizing that the success of the union ultimately depended on its ability to correct grievances and provide job security, Randolph employed various strategies to force the company to the bargaining table. First, in 1926 he attempted to bring the dispute before the federal Board of Mediation under the Watson-Parker Railway Labor Act. Although the board recommended arbitration, under the act arbitration was voluntary and the company demurred. Second, believing that depending on tips was a degrading practice and because the uncertainty of the amount to be expected was one of the porters' primary grievances, Randolph brought the tipping system before the Interstate Commerce Commission in 1927. A ruling prohibiting tipping in interstate travel would have compelled a wage increase, but the ICC ultimately decided it did not have jurisdiction. Thus the BSCP was forced to call a strike in 1928, but, accustomed to finding jobs as strikebreakers, African Americans knew other blacks would be eager to take what many considered a plush position and consequently were reluctant to actually walk off the job. In response to a rumor that Pullman had nearly five thousand Filipinos ready to take the places of brotherhood members, William Green advised Randolph to postpone the strike.
After the aborted strike, membership dropped and the BSCP almost ceased to exist. The more favorable labor legislation under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, however—especially passage of the amended Railway Act of 1934, which outlawed company unions—revived the BSCP. Although Pullman responded by replacing its ERP with the Pullman Porters and Maids Protective Association, the situation for labor had changed. The AFL granted the brotherhood an international charter in 1935. After twelve years the Pullman Company finally signed a contract with the BSCP on August 25, 1937, bringing improved working conditions and some $2 million in income to the porters and their families.
Beginning with the 1932 AFL convention, Randolph started denouncing racism within the federation and attacking federal unions designed for African Americans. Although well disposed to John L. Lewis and the industrial unionism of the unions that left the AFL in 1937 to form the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), Randolph—who had long advocated industrial unions—held the BSCP in the AFL, saying he thought it wiser to remain and fight for equality than to leave and let the federation
continue its racist policies undisturbed. BSCP officers contented themselves with trying to prevent the split in the union movement and later working for reunification, but competition from the CIO forced the AFL to a more egalitarian position on racial equality. When the two federations merged in 1955, Randolph became a vice president of the newly created AFL-CIO, and the BSCP became instrumental in pushing the combined federation to financially back civil rights activity.
Not only did the BSCP successfully negotiate a series of favorable wage agreements between Pullman and its porters through the years, but the union provided support for civil rights activity by contributing its labor and some 50,000 dollars to Randolph's various equality movements as well. By the fall of 1940, fueled by defense contracts, the American economy was beginning to emerge from the Great Depression. But because of racial discrimination, African Americans found themselves locked out of the new job opportunities opening in defense industries. Randolph, backed by the brotherhood, threatened a march on Washington of one hundred thousand blacks the following July 1, to demand jobs in defense plants and integration of the armed forces. While integration of the military was not achieved, the Roosevelt administration was sufficiently concerned to issue Executive Order 8802 in June 1941, creating the wartime Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC) in exchange for cancellation of the march. Although weak, the FEPC did provide job training and economic improvement for many African Americans. In 1948 the porters' union assisted, albeit more reluctantly, Randolph's threat of a black boycott of universal military training; the Truman administration capitulated with integration of the military by Executive Order 9981. The BSCP supported Randolph's prayer pilgrimage in 1957, marches in Washington for integrated schools in 1958 and 1959, and the march on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963. (Many organizers for the BSCP went on to assume important roles in the civil rights movement, such as E. D. Nixon, who played an instrumental part in the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955–1956.)
BSCP officers realized early on the threat to Pullman travel presented by the rise of commercial aviation; the drop was precipitous after World War II, with the porters becoming a diminished and aging group. Bowing to the decline of the railroad industry, in 1978 the BSCP merged with the Brotherhood of Railway and Airline Clerks. The brotherhood, however, had served its members well. Although porters were often absent from home because of long runs and usually missed holidays as well, the brotherhood helped the porters' domestic situation by providing job security, higher wages, and improved working conditions. Furthermore, during its heyday, under Randolph's leadership the BSCP became more than an instrumentality of service to the porters. From its inception in 1929 Randolph utilized the union's organ, the Black Worker, in the fight against communism, to educate porters to fight for civil rights, and to cajole them to abide by such middle-class virtues as thrift, cleanliness, and abstinence from alcohol. He organized the porters' wives into a Ladies' Auxiliary and their children into Junior Auxiliaries. The union thus encircled its members' lives and built their self-esteem. Trained in trade-union methods of collective bargaining, porters refused to beg for favors from the white power structure. Hence, the BSCP stimulated black participation in unions and fought to end discrimination in organized labor. The BSCP left an important legacy to both organized labor and the struggle for civil rights.
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Morales, Leslie Anderson. "The Porters Stand Together." Footsteps 4, no. 1 (January–February 2002): 18.
Santino, Jack. Miles of Smiles, Years of Struggle: Stories of Black Pullman Porters. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989.
Wilson, Joseph F. Tearing Down the Color Bar: A Documentary History and Analysis of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. New York: Columbia University Press, 1989.
paula f. pfeffer (1996)
Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters
BROTHERHOOD OF SLEEPING CAR PORTERS
Founded in 1925, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP), now part of the Brotherhood of Railway and Airline Clerks, was a critical institution linking together the African American community in the south and in the north. The union, composed entirely of the African American porters and maids who worked on the railway trains that traversed the nation, was a strategic institution in the African American community. It served as the "eyes and ears" of the black community. During the period of migration of African American people to the north following World War II, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters carried news about the conditions in the north: the availability of jobs and housing and generally what the migrants could expect from the authorities in the north. It was also a network of news about the civil rights movement in the south.
The members of the union, such as Mr. E.D. Nixon, a Pullman Porter who lived in Montgomery, Alabama and served as the president of the Alabama National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in the 1950s, often became leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. This had to do with the fact that the Porters literally had "broader horizons" due to the mobility associated with their jobs. E.D. Nixon helped provide leadership in the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955–1956.
The BSCP was organized in Harlem, New York City, in 1925 by Asa Philip Randolph (1889–1979). Randolph was the publisher of The Messenger, a New York monthly devoted to black politics and culture. He was a member of the Socialist Party and he believed that unions provided the best opportunity for black workers to secure a fair wage and to defend their rights.
Randolph led the union from 1925 until he retired in 1968. His union was not large—at its height it represented only about 12,000 workers, but it was strategically placed. Randolph also served as vice president of the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) in 1957.) As a labor leader, Randolph made many advances, both on the part of the union and on behalf of black Americans.
Initially, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP) had to deal with the Pullman Company because the company not only built the railway coaches (in its factory located in a suburb of Chicago), it also furnished to the railroads the personnel who served as porters and maids on the trains. As leader of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, Randolph organized these workers and bargained for union recognition and the right to negotiate labor contracts on their behalf with the Pullman Company. Randolph also secured inclusion of railway porters and maids in the language of the Railway Labor Act (1926). The act was designed to settle disputes through negotiation, mediation, arbitration, and to establish a protocol for the investigation and recommendations of an emergency fact-finding board.
Randolph worked for increases in wages for members of the brotherhood. The National Labor Relations Board certified the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters as the legitimate representative of the porters and maids in 1935. In 1941, Randolph pressured the federal government to provide blacks with equal access to jobs in the defense industries. Randolph threatened President Franklin Roosevelt with a large protest march unless Roosevelt established a policy of non-discrimination for African American workers and founded a national watchdog apparatus known as the Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEP). Franklin Roosevelt (1882–1945) agreed to this demand because the stated war goals of the United States included the fight against fascism and racism. In 1963, Randolph also figured prominently in directing the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the largest civil rights demonstration in American history.
Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters
BROTHERHOOD OF SLEEPING CAR PORTERS
BROTHERHOOD OF SLEEPING CAR PORTERS. A labor union founded by A. Philip Randolph in August 1925, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP) represented African American porters and maids who served the white patrons of Pullman sleeping and dining railroad cars. Threatened by the union, the Pullman Company delayed negotiations until 1935, when the Great Depression and President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal legislation helped force employers into collective bargaining. In 1937 the BSCP settled the first contract between a major U.S. company and a black union.
The BSCP also helped improve conditions for all African Americans. In June 1941, Randolph convinced President Roosevelt to sign Executive Order 8802, banning discrimination in government-related employment, and
to establish the Fair Employment Practices Committee. Randolph also helped persuade President Harry Truman to sign Executive Order 9981, barring discrimination in the military, in July 1948. BSCP member E. D. Nixon organized the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott in 1955, while Randolph led the August 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
Because airplanes had replaced railroads for luxury travel, in 1978 the BSCP merged with the Brotherhood of Railway and Airline Clerks and ceased to exist as an independent organization. Randolph, who had retired as president of the BSCP in 1968, died in 1979 at the age of ninety.
Santino, Jack. Miles of Smiles, Years of Struggle: Stories of Black Pullman Porters. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989.