Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (1925–1978)

Mass Meeting, Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, Chicago, 1933
Mass Meeting, Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters,
Chicago, 1933
Image Courtesy of the Chicago History Museum, ICHi-25673.

The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP) was a labor union
organized by African American employees of the Pullman Company in
August 1925 and led by A. Philip Randolph and Milton P. Webster. Over
the next twelve years, the BSCP fought a three-front battle against the
Pullman Company, the American Federation of Labor, and the anti-union,
pro-Pullman sentiments of the majority of the black community. Largely
successful on each front, the BCSP is a significant institution in both
the labor and civil rights history of the twentieth century United
States.

The BSCP faced long odds in 1925. Despite its charismatic leadership,
the union attracted only a small number of rank and file workers and at
no point before 1937 did it enroll a majority of porters. Most black
leaders outside the organization distrusted labor unions and, moreover,
viewed George Pullman, whose company provided jobs, relatively high
incomes, and a modicum of services to black employees, as an important
ally of the black community, a reputation Pullman assiduously exploited
in his effort to undermine the nascent union. Meanwhile, while the AFL
granted federal-local status to individual BSCP locals, it refused to
charter the all-black union as a full-fledged international.

Transforming his newspaper, the Messenger, into a propaganda vehicle
for the BSCP and tirelessly campaigning on behalf of the union, over
time Randolph convinced black leaders, clergymen, and newspaper editors
that Pullman’s paternalism masked what was in fact a servile position
for blacks within the company and a subtle recapitulation of the
master-slave relationship. In the process, the BSCP became both a
vehicle and a symbol of black advancement and, according to one
historian, helped facilitate the "rise of protest politics in black
America."

On the labor front, the BSCP survived an aborted strike in 1928 and a
precipitous drop in membership due to company opposition and the
hardship of the Great Depression. A favorable turn in the political
climate brought about by the New Deal, combined with the persistence of
union leaders and members finally forced the company to recognize the
BSCP in 1935. The AFL granted the BSCP an international charter that
same year and, after protracted negotiations, the union won its first
contract in 1937. Randolph used the BSCP and his own position in the
AFL-CIO leadership as a wedge for breaking down racial segregation in
the American labor movement. The BSCP also remained a source of
inspiration and activism in African American communities, providing a
training ground for future civil rights leaders like C.L. Dellums, E.D.
Nixon
, and of course Randolph himself.

BSCP membership eroded steadily in the 1950s and 1960s due to the
overall decline of the railroad industry. In 1971, it experienced a
brief resurgence with the rise of Amtrak, a government-sponsored
railway passenger service. However, in 1974 Amtrak made a contract with
a rival union, the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union. The
move was the final blow for the BSCP. In 1978 the BSCP merged with the
Brotherhood of Railway Clerks, now known as the Transportation
Communications International Union.

Source:

Beth Tompkins Bates, Pullman Porters and the Rise of Protest Politics in Black America, 1925-1945 (Chapel Hill:  UNC Press, 2001); William H. Harris, Keeping the Faith:  A. Philip Randolph, Milton P. Webster, and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, 1925-1937 (Urbana:  University of Illinois Press, 1977)