Thursday, October 19, 2017
Pullman Porters
By Yussuf Simmonds (Managing Editor)
Published July 23, 2009

A. Philip Randolph

Randolph – Black Heritage Stamp

Randolph at the March-on-Washington

By Yussuf J. Simmonds
Pullman Porters

“A Philip Randolph and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters”

At the dawn of the 20th century when the railroad industry was the major transportation in the United States that moved people, goods and services conducting interstate and intrastate commerce, the Pullman porter was an essential player in the railroad industry. The Pullman porter, in those days, was always a Black man. The Pullman coach had just been introduced to the nation and Blacks were leaving the rural South looking for the “Promised Land” in the urban North and West. Blacks had just been up from slavery and the post-Emancipation Proclamation period including the Reconstruction Era had whizzed by without much progress.

Black labor/Pullman porter and the railroad were a natural mix. Blacks needed jobs and the railroad welcomed cheap labor with minimum labor laws unenforced and labor union(s) for Blacks unheard of. It was indentured servitude and neo-slavery, but to the Black man with no better or other job offers, employment as a Pullman porter is a step-up especially when compared with work as a field hand picking cotton. Not only was it a “good” job, it became hereditary and was usually passed on to younger Blacks. (In those days, a Pullman porter stood “tall” in the Black community; it was a status symbol). Applicants, who came with references from family members who were old, trusted porters, were shoo-ins.

After being selected, the future porter was taken through rigorous careful training; he was sent to the Pullman Company Porter Training School where he learned how to be a first-class porter – and a well-trained “Negro” to be subservient to White people. The training included the proper method of folding and putting away blankets; making up beds; how to control the heating and air-conditioning; how to wake up passengers; and in general, how to deal with passengers and their different habits. Other training would come from older Blacks who were masters of the game of getting along, their natural instincts and on-the-job experience. Sometimes the older porter would allow the rookie porter to tag along before he is actually employed to get a feel for the job or make a dry-run.

The new porter had to buy his own uniforms for the first ten years; he also bought the polish that he would use on the passengers’ shoes. He did not fare any better relative to his meals and accommodations since he would have to spend days and sometimes weeks away from home while on the job. However, there were several reasons why Black men accepted some of the inhuman working conditions and the indignities: lack of other employable skills, scarcity of employment opportunities, and the basic need to sustain self and family. And though the base pay was not comparable to what others made for the same type of work, the Pullman porter made up the deficiency with tips, which would sometimes be more than his base pay. Since tips were often under-reported, precise figures were never recorded.

Another factor was the racial climate; Blacks were treated as second-class citizens. Jim Crow and institutional racism were integral parts of the social fabric of U.S. society. Segregation was the law – de facto and de jure. It is important to note that Blacks were about 11.6 percent of the population and the nation was in the midst of its own industrial revolution; Black people and Black labor was at the bottom of the “railroad industries” barrel.

Employment for the Pullman Company was not as glamorous as some in the Black community paraded it to be. It definitely was no “status symbol” as some portrayed it to be. Most of the passengers were white and the porters were sometimes dependent on their whims to remain employed. They reflected the racial ethic and insensitivity of the rest of society. Porters were treated differently than conductors – a job reserved for Whites only – and on their days off, they paid half price but could not in the coaches.

The Black community did not have a voice in any major segment of society, including the unions. The big employers like the Ford Motor Company, Kellogg’s Food Company, Bethlehem Steel and of course, the Pullman Company were openly sympathetic to plight of the workers but they were more sympathetic (interested) in their bottom line. Blacks were also apprehensive about collaborating with Whites on founding a union because in the final analysis, Blacks felt – with historic justification – that “today’s” joint venture may be “tomorrow’s” estrangement. Their common interests were not really common at all.

The first attempt by Pullman porters to organize a labor union was in 1909. Opposition came from different directions: the Pullman Company that did not want Blacks to form a labor union; often it would fire union leaders and was reported to have sanctioned assaults on union organizers. The American Federation of Labor (AFL) that controlled labor unions throughout the country also squelched any efforts to organize since it would have had to issue a charter to an all-Black labor union, and they did not want to.

As one of the largest employers of Blacks in the 1920s and 1930s, the Pullman Company had created an image of itself as a benevolent supporter of Black churches, newspapers, NAACP and other organizations in the Black community. So it could deflect any criticism about the horrific working conditions on the Pullman coaches. Furthermore, it also believed that the few well-paid managers within the company balanced out the masses that were grossly underpaid. Whenever employee dissatisfaction surfaced, Pullman’s knee-jerk response was to denounce the legitimate advocates as troublemakers and rabble-rousers while leaning on those whom it financially supported in the Black community – the churches, the press and other organizations – to do the actually “dirty” work. Pullman’s tentacles would sometimes reach local authorities that would help the company by interfering or banning BSCP meetings.

But the porters were not dismayed since the need for better working conditions was paramount. While they continued working, year after year, they also kept trying to organize a union. In 1925, A. Philip Randolph successfully organized the first predominantly Black Pullman porters’ labor union: the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP); he was its first president. About 500 porters had secretly gathered in Harlem to launch the union with Randolph, as an outsider – he had quit being a porter to have the autonomy to organize and lead the union. For its motto, the union chose “Fight or Be Slaves” which summed up the feelings the members harbored about their working conditions.

At first, BSCP found itself isolated by some of its friends in the Black community and many liberal Whites, in addition to rival unions within the AFL structure that did not want an independent Black union as a potential competitor. The BSCP also tried to involve the federal government in its fight with the Pullman Company By filing a case with the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC), requesting an investigation of Pullman rates, porters’ wages, tipping practices, and other matters related to wages and working conditions. The ICC ruled that it did not have jurisdiction. (Years later, in Henderson v United States, et al, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that segregation in the railroad car is unequal treatment and violated the ICC Act. Though that case was filed by a passenger, the ruling affected the entire railroad business structure).

Randolph himself had started as a train porter so he knew the story from personal experience. He had also been to college and was somewhat disappointed because he grew up believing that education would be his ticket to upward mobility. Along the way, he found out that being Black came with its own setbacks, drawbacks and baggage despite his academic qualifications, and being a prominent member of the Socialist Party, did not help.

In addition to the porters, the BSCP organized fellow Blacks in laundries, clothing factories and movie houses industries under its union umbrella. Sometimes the road ahead was daunting; organizing the porters’ union and branching out to include other workers were just the start of a long, continuous bumpy road. It took the towering efforts of the ordinary men and women to maintain and sustain that massive endeavor. Within three years of its founding, BSCP had organized about half of Pullman’s porters but were still not given the quality recognition that a labor union deserved. So the members decided to strike as the last straw in forcing the company to deal with their grievances. The leadership was mixed on the expected results and at the last minute, Randolph called it off.

The BSCP received a charter from AFL in 1935 and after struggling for 12 years, it won its first collective bargaining agreement with the Pullman Company. From then on, Pullman porters were officially authorized to meet, converse and negotiate their working conditions, their wages and other legally binding contracts within the framework of labor law. As employees, they had the legal right to challenge their employer on any improper or illegal work-related matter.

As soon as the BSCP was stabilized, Randolph and the members shifted their focus to the Civil Rights Struggle. He believed the union and the civil rights movement shared a common goal, and together they would get more accomplished that fighting their battles separately. Many of the BSCP members were from the South and they felt obligated to reach back to help the overt segregation that still existed. (Notwithstanding, segregation in the North was more subtle). The collaboration of both movements played a significant role in uniting union leaders, Edgar D. Nixon (the head of Alabama’s BSCP) with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other the civil rights leaders which led Dr. King to found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Nixon played an important role in the Montgomery Improvement Association, the organization which was founded in the wake of Rosa Parks’ arrest for not giving up her seat on the bus to a White man. He also bailed Parks out of jail after that arrest. (As a union organizer before the Montgomery incident, Nixon had been campaigning for civil and voting rights for Blacks, particularly in the South. During the boycott, his home was bombed and he endured numerous indignities before it was all over. Nixon ran for a seat on the county Democratic Executive Committee and would question prospective candidates about their positions on civil rights issues).

Eventually, the BSCP became one of the most powerful Black political entities of the 20th century and Randolph was called the elder statesman of labor leaders. He not only stood up to Pullman, but he also took the Blackman’s case directly to the White House to President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman respectively when they refused to integrate the defense industries and the armed forces.

Finally, Randolph was the organizer of the March on Washington where Dr. King gave his famous “I Have A Dream” speech. So significant was his role in that historic event that Life magazine featured him and his protŽgŽ, Bayard Rustin, on its cover. While King provided the words, it was Randolph who organized the gathering. His words will forever be remembered:

“Salvation for a race, nation, or class must come from within. Freedom is never granted; it is won. Justice is never given; it is exacted. Freedom and justice must be struggled for by the oppressed of all lands and races, and the struggle must be continuous; for freedom is never a final act, but a continuing evolving process to higher and higher levels of human, social, economic, political and religious relationships.”

Categories: Legends

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