Phil Randolph and the Pullman Porters
by Thomas C. Fleming, Jul 22, 1998
Philip Randolph, the founder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, made a greater impression on me in my early days than any other individual engaged in the fight for equality. He was very active not only in the union movement, but in the whole civil rights movement. He was always one of the leaders -- a great liberal and a champion of working men, regardless of color.
Illustration from 1934, when the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car
Randolph was the union's national president, with headquarters in New York City. He made yearly speaking tours of the nation, and I was lucky enough to be introduced to him when he came to Oakland, California, where I was living then. I went to hear him several times. He was about six feet tall, and had a tremendous bass voice -- a very commanding presence. He was one of the most impressive speakers I had ever heard. That was one of the main reasons I joined the Dining Car Cooks and Waiters Union when I went to work for the Southern Pacific Railroad in
Porters was accepted into the American Federation of Labor.
At that time, Phil Randolph and his two principal lieutenants, William Webster in Chicago and C.L. Dellums in Oakland, were encountering a multitude of obstacles from porters -- some from fear of losing their jobs if they joined the union, and from many others out of ignorance. I met many such porters, and those in the latter class fought Randolph as hard as the Pullman Company did.
More and more, Pullman sleeping cars were a part of all of the luxury passenger trains. The Pullman Company owned and manufactured virtually all the sleeping cars, club cars and observation cars on railroads in the United States. They built them all at their plant in Chicago, and had agreements with the railroads to operate the Pullman cars themselves, under separate authority from the railroad's own crew. Every train with Pullman cars had a white Pullman conductor. The Pullman porters were all black men.
When the Pullman porters came into the dining car where I worked, they had to pay for their meals, although they got a deduction. They arrived before the first call for breakfast was made through the train. Most porters ate only two meals a day.
Before Randolph emerged as the leader of the sleeping car porters in 1925, conditions were deplorable. The hours were very long, with no overtime. The Pullman Company paid very low wages, and the porters had to depend on the generosity of the traveling public to increase their income.
In the early days of the union, some workers became stool pigeons. They attended meetings, then went back to the company and reported what had happened. Randolph was widely heralded for being sent a blank check, signed by the Pullman Company, and being told to write in his own figure and forget about that union nonsense. He made a photographic copy of the check, framed it to put on display, and sent back the original.
Randolph worked with the NAACP, and used the same weapons as it did: protest and agitate, go through the courts, file suits, then work on members of Congress to get them to pass legislation, and work on the state legislators in all the states. All the black spokesmen did that. They're still using the same methods today.
Randolph exposed the American labor movement as one of whites only. His view was that the crippling effects that racism produced on blacks must go. So his appeal was very broad to blacks all over the nation.
The white union leaders never did lend any support to Phil Randolph when he formed the sleeping car porters. They were very antagonistic toward him. He endured all manner of insults from the American Federation of Labor before he was able to get an international charter in 1934.
Even then, he was never accorded the same respect and courtesy that presidents of other unions received at the conventions. It seemed that the thought of a black becoming a part of the labor movement was too much. When he went to executive board meetings of the AFL, nobody talked to him. They would turn their backs when he came around.
And then came the big fight with the Pullman Company to gain recognition as the bargaining agent for the porters. It took 12 years before the company would sit down with him and make the agreement. Finally in 1937, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters was accepted by the Pullman Company as the official representative for the porters. It was the first all-black union to be recognized by a major U.S. corporation.
In 1978, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters merged with a larger union, the Brotherhood of Railway and Airline Clerks, and ceased to exist as an independent organization. Philip Randolph died in 1979 at the age of 90.
Copyright © 1998 by Thomas Fleming. Email.
At 90, Fleming continues to write each week for the Sun-Reporter, San Francisco's African American weekly, which he co-founded in 1944. A 48-page book of his stories and photos from 1907-19 is available for $3, including postage, and a 90-minute cassette tape of his recollections of black life in Florida, Harlem and Chico from 1912-1926 is available for $5, including postage. Send mailing address or call 415-771-6279.
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