Pullman Porters

A sepia toned illustration of a black porter making the best for an upper berth in a train car.
Engraving titled "Making up the berths" from "Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper," August 25, 1877.

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Pullman Porters

"As important as is this lucrative contract as a labor victory to the Pullman porters, it is even more important to the Negro race as a whole, from the point of view of the Negro's uphill climb for respect, recognition and influence, and economic advance. " - G. James Fleming in the NAACP's Crisis, 1937

In the early 20th century, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP) strove for recognition of their union, a victory whose impact went beyond Pullman Porters to the African-American society on the whole.

Operation of railroads across the country relied on different classes of workers: conductors and engineers in the "operating trades," construction and laborers, and service positions like porters, dining car waiters, and station ushers. The classes of railway workers were segmented along racial and ethnic lines. Workers in the railroad trades began forming "brotherhoods" in the 1860s and 1870s as a response to health and safety issues. Many of these brotherhoods codified these racial divisions, barring non-whites from membership. In general, African-Americans were confined to the service positions.

Thus it was in the service positions that black trade unionism on the railroads began. The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters was founded in 1925 in New York City, and for four decades was led by A. Philip Randolph. From outside the Pullman Company, he was not susceptible to their reprisals, and his powerful public speaking and work editing the Harlem, New York monthly The Messenger helped prepare him for the task. Porters comprised 44 percent of the Pullman rail car operation workforce, and Pullman was the nation's largest employer of African Americans. The porters, owing in part to their cosmopolitan experience, held positions of status and respect in the black community. The union faced tough opposition from a traditionally racist industry, an anti-union corporation, and initially from some in the black community. Many members of the African-American community feared economic reprisals, since the Pullman Company offered jobs to African-Americans and advertised in the black press.

In 1937, the Pullman Company signed a contract with the BSCP, leading to higher salaries, better job security, and increased protection for workers' rights through grievance procedures. It was the first major labor agreement between an African-American union and a corporation. The NAACP's Crisis credited the victory for broad influence, saying, "As important as is this lucrative contract as a labor victory to the Pullman porters, it is even more important to the Negro race as a whole, from the point of view of the Negro's uphill climb for respect, recognition and influence, and economic advance." The BSCP also functioned as a civil rights organization through the 1960s.

 

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Last updated: May 18, 2022

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