Home / General / This Day in Labor History: August 25, 1925

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.

The union, like so much of organized labor during the 1920s, was not particularly successful in forcing the company to the bargaining table. Although it soon signed up about half the porters, company resistance was overwhelming. The company made connections with law enforcement in cities with a lot of porters to bust up union meetings for instance. The union decided to strike in 1928 in order to get the National Mediation Board to force Pullman to the bargaining table, but the company convinced the NMB that the Brotherhood did not represent enough workers to get involved and Randolph had to call off the strike at the last minute. Still, the union struggled along, in no small part because it was such a valuable member of the growing civil rights movement in the 1930s. Southern states banned the Chicago Defender, the nation’s most important African-American newspaper, from the mails, but the Brotherhood brought it with them on trips to the South and spread it into the communities that way.

It wasn’t until the Wagner Act passed that the Brotherhood was guaranteed survival and the Pullman Company finally agreed to contract in 1937. The contract achieved improved pay, overtime pay, and a shorter workweek. But even by 1937, the job of the railroad porter had begun to disappear as Americans moved to private vehicles for transportation. The union survived until 1978, when it merged with the Brotherhood of Railway, Airline, Steamship Clerks, Freight Handlers, Express, and Station Employees. But it’s membership had been small for decades before that merger. It actually had a brief change of resurgence with the creation of Amtrak in 1971, but in 1974, the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (HERE) won that contract and its days were numbered.

Randolph remained at the center of African-American organizing until the day he died, most famously calling for a March on Washington in 1941 to protest discrimination and segregation in industries receiving defense contracts, a threat that led President Roosevelt to issue Executive Order 8802, establishing the Fair Employment Practices Committee and forcing open employers receiving defense contracts to black workers.

The legacy of the Sleeping Car Porters remained powerful in the early years of the Civil Rights Movement. Not only did Randolph receive a major supporting role in Martin Luther King’s March on Washington but he also played a key role in convincing John Lewis to tone down his harsh speech representing SNCC’s increasingly uncompromising position at the event. Randolph also played a huge role in pressuring Harry Truman to end segregation in the armed forces, which he did in 1948. Among the union members to help shape the movement on the local level was E.D. Nixon, probably the single most important person in laying the groundwork for the Montgomery movement that sparked the modern era of the movement in 1955.

This is the 40th post in this series. The entire series is archived here.

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