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Highway History

The Road to Civil Rights

The International Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters

During this period of fierce union activism, African-Americans were cautious, especially since most unions excluded members of their race. Moreover, many companies fought openly and in secret to block union recruiting. Pullman, like many other companies, employed spies among the workers to identify union activists who would then be fired.

In 1915, the company took a step that other companies had tried to channel worker concerns by establishing its own union for workers:

Recognizing the inevitably of porters banding together in some way, the company tried to set the form, control the function, and guarantee that the organization stayed friendly. The Pullman Porters Benefit Association got things started. It was supposed to be independent, but its first chairman was Arthur A. Wells, George Pullman's longtime private car attendant and personal assistant, and its expenses came from company coffers. [Rising , p. 105-106]

In 1920, the company established the Employee Representation Plan, a porters' union to handle grievances and advise on wages.

In 1925, the attitude of the porters toward union activism began to change. Five veteran porters created the International Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters that summer. They selected A. Philip Randolph to lead the union and the crusade to build it. One of his qualifications was that he could not be fired - he had never been a porter and had never ridden in a Pullman sleeper. He was, however, notorious. He was a socialist, an atheist, union activist, and a pacifist during World War I, earning himself the title, "most dangerous Negro in America."

A native of Jacksonville, Florida, Randolph had grown up in poverty. Jacksonville had been open to African-Americans in the 19th century, but early in the 20th century the city began to implement the Jim Crow restrictions that were increasingly common throughout the South. His father was minister at the impoverished African Methodist Episcopal Church:

Not long after the Randolphs moved in, Negroes were dislodged politically and given their own, second-rate sections at schools and hospitals, in theaters, jails, and saloons, on streetcars, and in government itself. [Rising , p. 117]

Their parents prohibited young Asa and his brother from using the segregated streetcars or reading room at the public library, but emphasized the importance of reading and speaking articulately and precisely, like the Shakespearean actors their father admired. The brothers attended Cookman Institute, the State's first high school for African-Americans. Asa did well in English, public speaking, and drama, and sang baritone in the choir and was a standout baseball player. Financial considerations meant that college was out of the question, so Asa took odd jobs around Jacksonville after graduation until he moved to New York City in April 1911.

While working at menial jobs, he attended City College, which was free to students, and began his shift to radical beliefs. He also found a wife, Lucille Green, a teacher who had found lucrative work in a beauty salon after her first husband had died. Her income helped the young couple survive as her husband became more involved in radical politics and union activities. [Rising , p. 116-130]

With his fortunes sinking by the mid-1920s, Randolph was just what the five union organizers were looking for:

Randolph needed a job, a salary, and a new focus for his crusade to unionize Negro workers. The five lonely Pullman porters plotting to launch a union in 1925 needed a crusader capable of waging holy war, for that is what it would take to defy porters' twenty-five year history of organizing fiascoes. Both were desperate. Both found what they were looking for. [Rising , p. 131]

On August 25, 1925, the Brotherhood held its first large meeting. The auditorium of the Imperial Lodge of Elks in Harlem was packed with porters, as well as company spies. Randolph addressed them with the articulation of a Shakespearean actor:

Aware that many porters were distressed by his street-corner evangelizing against the church, he opened the meeting with a prayer and a tribute to his preacher-father. Knowing how timid previous union-building bids had been, he was direct. "What this is about is making you master of your economic fate," Randolph intoned, explaining that he would demand a minimum monthly wage of $150, a limit of 240 hours, and, in a statement sure to waken anyone snoozing in the heat, an end to the sacred practice of tipping. He acknowledged never having ridden a Pullman car but called that a testament to his poverty and a sign that "the price is too high." [Rising , p. 114]

He promised gains that those in attendance could achieve - if they were not fired.

The next few years, the union struggled to gain members, but could not secure certification as the union of the porters. These struggles became even more dire during the Depression of the 1930s when job security was paramount. The company continued to work against union activists.

The election of New York Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932 to be President gave new hope to union leaders. In 1934, they helped secure approval of the National Labor Relations Act. It prohibited company unions and required companies to negotiate with unions chosen by a majority of its workers - and that explicitly included Pullman porters among the groups covered.

The Pullman Company tried to establish its own Pullman Porters and Maids Protective Association, but by secret ballot, the porters chose the Brotherhood to represent them. The company began negotiating in 1935 on a new contract that would take 2 years to complete. Despite its continued resistance to union power, the company finally conceded that times had changed:

Most ominous, the five big railroad unions were stuck in contracts disputes and, on August 25, 1937, announced plans for a nationwide strike of 250,000 railroad workers. Pullman porters said they might walk out with them.

Still, what happened that same morning in the Chicago conference room where the Brotherhood was negotiating with Pullman representatives shocked everyone on the union's side of the table. The Pullman Company vice president, Champ Carry, entered the session and announced, "Gentlemen, the Pullman Company is ready to sign." He then circled the long bargaining table, shaking hands with each of the eight Brotherhood negotiators. Twelve years to the day after Randolph had launched the Brotherhood in Harlem's steamy Elks hall, the union of Pullman porters had its first contract with the powerful Pullman Company. [Rising , p. 162]

The agreement delivered major gains to the porters, including an increase in minimum pay from $77.50 to $89.50, a monthly schedule of nor more than 240 hours, and pay for preparing cars. The union's success propelled it to a leadership role within the African-American community. [Rising , p. 165]

The prominent position of the union also made Randolph a leader in the evolving Civil Rights Movement. As will be discussed later, he worked to end discrimination by defense contractors and segregation in the military and went on to lead many other landmark efforts, including the 1963 March on Washington.

The era of the Pullman porter began to fade in the 1940s as America shifted away from passenger rail. From a peak of 40 million passengers in 1920, ridership had declined to 15 million in 1940. Following a wartime boom, declines resumed: 16 million in 1950; 11 million in 1955, and only 2½ million in 1965. Like passenger service overall, the Pullman Company was losing money. The decline reflected a general increase in options for the traveling public:

Automobile production had started to skyrocket during the First World War, with assembly lines turning out nearly 2 million cars and trucks in 1917, ten times more than in 1910. Much the way the Iron Horse had symbolized American progress in the late 1800s, so Henry Ford's Tin Lizzie embodied an America on the move in the early 1900s. The federal government fueled the trend during the 1950s when it began pumping billions of dollars into highway construction, laying down a true national network. By 1960, nearly 90 percent of Americans were traveling between cities by private car, with a patchwork of hastily constructed motels and inns displacing the old hotels on wheels.

The remaining 10 percent of travelers chose a bus, train, or plane. That choice, too, was skewing against the sleeping cars. Buses were the cheapest alternative, and, with new highways to ride on and schedules rivaling the railroads, they lured away many of Pullman's middle-class riders. Day trains ate into the sleeper businesses in two ways: modern locomotives got there fast enough to make some night travel unnecessary, while for economy-minded overnighters there were newly spacious coach seats with leg rests and reclining backs . . . .

But it was planes that hurt most. Airlines let business travelers cross the country in six hours rather than the four days a sleeper took, and ensured honeymooners and other vacationers more time at their destination. Few seemed to mind sacrificing the romance of getting there. In 1926, only 5,782 Americans flew on commercial airlines. In 1938, the number was up to 1,343,427, and by 1946, domestic flights had pulled even with Pullman in passenger loads. As for price, airlines were able to lower fares as technology improved and traffic increased, whereas Pullman had enormous labor costs that it could not shed. The sleeping car firm was left trying to market a service in the 1950s that was four times slower than its aerial rival and nearly twice as costly. By 1960, the company was back where it had been when George launched it nearly one hundred years before; as the domain of those so well heeled they could indulge in luxury and not trouble themselves about time or price.

The effect on porters was inevitable. When the International Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters was formed in 1925, the company employed 12,000 porters. Only 7,500 porters remained in 1939, when the company stopped hiring porters. In 1960, only 2,852 porters were still working, and only 1,151 in 1968. The wage increases that the union had secured with its first contract when the company was profitable, were tempered as the company's profits declined.

Another factor involved the prestige of the porters' position in African-American communities:

Porters also were seeing their status slip within the hierarchy of the black middle class, especially in cities like Chicago. Young black men moving there from the South in the 1920s and 1930s found they could earn a good living in factories and meatpacking plants, or as police officers and firemen, none of which carried the porter's stigma of servitude or required being away from home. Add in the growing difficulty of landing a job as a Pullman porter, and it is no surprise that ambitious young blacks began looking elsewhere to build their future.

The Pullman Company ended its sleeping car service on January 1, 1969. It had been a good run - 103 years - but the company realized profits would never return. By then, the service was a shadow of itself, down from a peak of 10,000 sleeping cars to only 425. [Rising , p. 232-237]

In October 1968, A. Philip Randolph stepped aside from his position as head of the union. By 1978, the union had fewer than 1,000 members and it was merged with the Brotherhood of Railway and Airline Clerks, which no longer prohibited African-American members.

The Nation's railroads had all but abandoned interstate passenger service by the end of the 1960s. It simply wasn't profitable, and no longer a public service worth subsidizing with profits from freight shipments. In 1971, legislation established the National Railroad Passenger Corporation to operate passenger rail under the name Amtrak. It continued to provide sleeper service on its long-distance routes. "But although Amtrak did its best to sustain sleeping car service, it was difficult to match the reality of Pullman service-and impossible to live up to the legend." The company operates only 163 sleepers, which are serviced by workers called "attendants," not "porters," and might be men or women of any race.

By then, of course, African-Americans had many other opportunities in the railroad industry:

While whites were breaking up the black monopoly among porters and waiters, blacks were making even greater inroads on the railroad. They were being hired in sales jobs and supervisory ones, and moving up from laborer and service posts to skilled ones. One train in December 1968 was reported to have been under the control of an all-black crew. "If any one 12-month period can be identified as the breakthrough for the Negro, 1969 would have to be it," Trains magazine reported in August 1973. That timing is sad as well as ironic, since the breakthrough came precisely twelve months too late for it to affect the Pullman Company. [Rising , 238-239]

Lucille Randolph, who had encouraged her husband in days when she was the breadwinner, died in 1963 after arthritis and a broken hip had kept her confined to the family's Harlem apartment for her last 10 years. A. Philip Randolph died on May 16, 1979.

Updated: 10/17/2013
Federal Highway Administration | 1200 New Jersey Avenue, SE | Washington, DC 20590 | 202-366-4000