This Day in Labor History: August 25, 1925

On this date in 1925, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters was founded. Led by A. Philip Randolph, this labor union became the most important civil rights organization in mid-20th century America, arguably as important as the NAACP.

Racism shut most jobs to black people in the early 20th century, but the Pullman Company was willing to hire them as waiters and porters on their train sleeping cars. Acquiring such a job basically put one squarely into the black middle class. Yet Pullman’s definition of these service job as black work meant replicating the servant/master relationship that defined so much African-American labor through American history. Within the African-American community, the job provided a great deal of dignity, but that dignity had to be abnegated in interactions with whites on the train.

Being a porter may have been a relatively good job, but that doesn’t mean it was actually a good job. Porters were dependent on tips for most of their income, making subservience a central point to their existence. The conditions of work were poor. Salaries were low and porters had to provide their own uniforms, food, and lodging. They spent up to half of their income just maintaining themselves in the job.

A. Philip Randolph was the son of a minister and seamstress. His family was well-established in the black middle of class of turn of the century Jacksonville. But that was a pretty awful time for African-Americans. The institutionalization of Jim Crow, violent repression of black political organizing, and rampant lynching defined the period. His parents were deeply involved in the community, going so far as to arm themselves to protect a prisoner from lynching when Randolph was a child. At the age of 21, in 1910, he joined the Socialist Party, founded a newspaper dedicated to issues of race and class, and organized a union of elevator operators in 1917 before turning to organizing the sleeping car porters.

Randolph’s new union provoked fierce opposition from a number of quarters. Pullman executives called Randolph a communist. The company hired a lot of spies to infiltrate the union and report back on whatever its workers said. Company thugs beat organizers. That was to be expected, but the company also had allies in the black elite of Chicago, who saw Randolph as a troublemaker and the best jobs for their people threatened by the Brotherhood. Randolph undertook a decade-long campaign to influence elite black opinion-makers to the necessity of this organization. Yet the union continued to struggle for survival. Pullman refused to negotiate, partially because of its opposition to organized labor, partially because these workers were black.

One reason the black community was suspicious of the union is that white organized labor had treated them like the enemy for a century. They felt, with good reason, that employers had their interests much more in mind than white workers. Randolph had to overcome these real concerns, which he did in part by eschewing reliance upon whites for any part of union activities. In fact, the Brotherhood was not the first attempt by black sleeping car porters organize. As early as 1900, porters engaged in repeated organizing attempts, which the company soon crushed. Randolph had a complicated history with the AFL. He worked to organize a union of African-American shipyard workers in Virginia in 1921 but the AFL forced it to disband. By the 20s, the AFL came under greater pressure to open organized labor to non-whites and it did give charters to some Brotherhood locals, but still denied a charter to the international until 1935.

It’s also important to avoid the narrative so common in both labor and African-American history (and maybe all of history) to identify a movement or an event with a single individual. While we can’t overstate Randolph’s importance, he was hardly the only person running the organization. Men like Milton Price Webster, more or less forgotten about today, played absolutely central roles in the union. A long-time organizer and former porter fired by Pullman for his unionization attempts, he provided invaluable experience and connections for Randolph, despite skepticism for the latter’s socialist beliefs.

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