African American labor leader Willard S. Townsend was born on December 4, 1895, in Cincinnati, Ohio, to Willard and Cora Elizabeth Townsend. In 1938 he organized railway workers of several Chicago, Illinois stations to form the International Brotherhood of Redcaps and remained the union’s president for the rest of his life.
Townsend’s father Willard was a contractor, and he married his cousin, Cora. Townsend worked at the Cincinnati rail station from 1912 to 1914, after he graduated from the local high school. Two years later, he joined the army and served in France during World War I as a lieutenant. When he came home from the war, Townsend helped form an all-black company of the Ohio National Guard. He shortly after entered the Illinois School of Chiropody in Chicago, transferred to the University of Toronto’s premedical program in Ontario, Canada, then graduated with a degree in chemistry from the Royal College of Science in Toronto, in 1924. Townsend moved back to Chicago in 1929 and married Consuelo Mann in 1930.
Townsend worked as a redcap (a baggage porter at railway stations) after high school and during college. When he returned to the job in 1932 during the Great Depression, the low wages, antipathy from white railroad workers, and lack of employee representation inspired Townsend to form a union for his occupation. He was motivated by the example of A. Philip Randolph’s Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP), which had successfully formed despite a hostile white workforce. The BSCP encouraged and helped Townsend in his campaign, although the two unions would later compete for the same workers.
After a series of meetings with workers from five Chicago stations starting in 1936, the International Brotherhood of Redcaps was formed in 1938. In 1940 the union was renamed the United Transport Service Employees (UTSE) union, after inviting Pullman laundry workers and porters to join. Townsend fought to have redcaps recognized as employees of the railway, not independent contractors. White workers who opposed the unionizing of the redcaps held that since they were mostly paid in tips, that they didn’t have the same employee status. Townsend made sure his union members and their wages were protected under the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. He lobbied Congress, and in a resulting Supreme Court ruling in 1940, redcaps were ensured regular pay through a 10-cent flat rate for each parcel of baggage carried between trains.
In 1942 the UTSE joined the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), and Townsend was elected vice president, becoming the first African American to hold office in a national labor organization. Townsend also belonged to the CIO’s Committee to Abolish Racial Discrimination and was elected its secretary. Townsend served on the six-man panel of the World Federation of Trade Unions which worked with different nations regarding union practices and to exchange ideas about worker mobilization.
Townsend was also involved with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the National Urban League, and the American Council on Race Relations. He served on the Board of Trustees for Hampton Institute.
At the age of fifty-four, Townsend returned to college to study law and received a degree from Blackstone Law School in Chicago in 1951. In 1955 when the American Federation of Labor and the CIO merged, he became its vice president. Willard Townsend died on February 3, 1957, in Chicago at the age of sixty-one from a kidney ailment.