Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters
- LAST REVIEWED: 11 May 2023
- LAST MODIFIED: 28 June 2016
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190280024-0011
- LAST REVIEWED: 11 May 2023
- LAST MODIFIED: 28 June 2016
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190280024-0011
The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and Maids (BSCP) was a predominantly African American labor union. Founded in 1925 by Asa Philip Randolph, Milton P. Webster, and Ashley Totten, the BSCP struggled for twelve years for recognition. In 1937 it became the first independent union organized and led by African Americans to force a multinational corporation, the Pullman Palace Car Company, to negotiate a labor contract. In recognition, the BSCP was admitted to full membership in the American Federation of Labor (AFL), and Randolph became the first African American union president in the AFL. The BSCP, which at its height boasted a membership of 18,000 passenger railway workers from Canada to Mexico, declined in the 1960s as the national interstate system grew and airline travel became popular. In 1978 the remaining 1,000 members merged with its former nemesis, the Brotherhood of Airline and Railway Clerks. From the beginning of the Pullman Company in 1867, Pullman’s luxurious “hotels on wheels” employed African American men, primarily formerly enslaved house servants from the South, to serve its white sleeping car passengers. By 1900, Pullman was the largest single employer of African Americans in North America, claiming for itself an image of a benevolent father. Pullman porters were called the “aristocrats” of black labor because they wore blue uniforms and ties rather than the denims and bandanas of packinghouse workers and agricultural peons. But behind the minstrel mask of the “Porters’ Blues” was industrialized racial servitude: omnipresent supervision, 400-hour work months, lives dependent on tips from passengers, and jobs deemed “fit” only for black people. BSCP president Randolph (b. 1889–d. 1979) was a socialist orator, a publisher of the influential Harlem Renaissance journal The Messenger, a labor leader who challenged the white hegemony of the AFL at every annual convention, and a political strategist of nonviolent protests to change government racial policies. Civil rights activists called him the “Dean” of the movement. Well before Brown v. Board of Education (1954), Randolph’s “civil rights” goals were equal employment opportunity, economic justice, and decent working conditions for all. Though he had yet to fully secure these benefits for BSCP members, in 1941 Randolph staged a showdown with President Franklin D. Roosevelt that led to the creation of the Fair Employment Practice Committee, the World War II forerunner to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission established by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. BSCP vice presidents and local leaders followed Randolph’s example, parlaying their positions as union officials to engage in civil rights and labor struggles in their own communities. In Montgomery, Alabama, E. D. Nixon spearheaded the bus boycott in 1955; in St. Louis, Missouri, T. D. McNeal served as the public face of the lunch counter sit-ins in the city’s department stores in 1943; in Oakland, BSCP International vice president C. L. Dellums successfully fought to integrate the federal National Youth Administration camps in California.
Histories of the BSCP
The standard histories of the BSCP’s first twelve years follow the “slavery to freedom” narrative, with hagiographic sidebars to Randolph. These stories functioned as catechisms for union members and black communities and in oral histories the script varies only slightly to include personal anecdotes. For the researcher, clarifying this interpretation is difficult; alternative explanations for the BSCP’s 1936 election win depend on broader views of the era. For example, Brazeal 1946 argues union strength was a key factor, while Harris 1977 concludes amendments to the Federal Railway Act of 1934 and the BSCP’s federal court fight were the main reasons for the victory of the BSCP. Allen 2014 (cited under Regional and Local and BSCP Leaders) quotes C. L. Dellums’s observation that Pullman signed the contract in April 1937 just days after the US Supreme Court upheld the amended Railway Labor Act. Uncritical stories say the victory of the Brotherhood resulted from sheer persistence. A nuanced explanation for its triumph must account for changes in federal labor policy that were the result of US Supreme Court decisions and the role of business interests. Some contemporaries have suggested that Randolph ran the Brotherhood more like a civil rights organization that happened to be a labor union, which could be taken as criticism or praise. Existing literature reinforces this ambiguity. After the BSCP signed its first contract, scholars turned their attention to Randolph and the March on Washington movement (MOWM) (see National Political Movements led by Randolph and the BSCP). But the day-to-day challenge of putting into operation a new contract that reduced porters’ working hours from 400 to 240 hours per month, raised wages, altered work rules, and provided new benefits has not been analyzed (See Working Conditions of Porters and Other BSCP Members). Moreover, some contract gains could hardly be called “victories” during the Great Depression when thousands of porters had been laid off. Randolph’s frequent avowals that the BSCP imposed no color bar is challenged in Posadas 1982 (cited under Working Conditions of Porters and Other BSCP Members), which examines the experiences of Filipino attendants. While Mathieu 2010 (cited under BSCP in Canada) considers the transnational composition of the BSCP’s Canadian Division, research remains to be done on the participation of West Indians officers and porters in the United States. Randolph’s challenges to the color bar in the big four railway brotherhoods through litigation and AFL convention floor resolutions are addressed in McNeil 1983 (cited under Legal Cases), Arnesen 2001, and Kornweibel 2010 (both cited under Black Railroad Workers and Black Workers in the United States), and Mathieu 2010 (cited under the BSCP in Canada), but only Chateauvert 1998 (cited under Women and the BSCP) mentions the BSCP’s disastrous election loss to represent black and white car men and car cleaners during World War II. Detroit’s Rev. C. L. Franklin believed the BSCP never expanded its jurisdiction even as other unions merged to command power, as Kersten and Lang 2015 (cited under Biographies of A. Philip Randolph) notes. Though the end of passenger rail service is blamed for the union’s demise, in the early 1960s Randolph rejected an appeal from white female flight attendants to become their representative.
Bates, Beth Tompkins. Pullman Porters and the Rise of Protest Politics in Black America, 1925–1945. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001.
Set in Chicago, this volume explores the conversion of upper-middle-class black leaders to support the BSCP as well as new consciousness of class issues. Ida B. Wells-Barnett and other clubwomen figure prominently. Argues that the NAACP became labor oriented in the 1930s as a result.
Brazeal, Brailsford R. The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters: Its Origin and Development. New York: Harper, 1946.
A standard trade union history but still required reading for scholars for details regarding wage schedules, seniority and work rules, and internal union organization, including the Ladies’ Auxiliary. Includes tables of eligible ballots cast for the BSCP and other unions, organized by region in the 1936 election. Appendices include frequently citied membership figures for both union locals and auxiliaries.
Harris, William H. Keeping the Faith: A. Philip Randolph, Milton P. Webster and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, 1925–1937. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1977.
Definitive history of the BSCP’s first twelve years, focusing on the rivalry and partnership between the charismatic president Randolph and Milton P. Webster, a former porter in Chicago, the largest division. Focuses on leadership and neglects rank-and-file union members, who were, ultimately, the reason for unionizing. Harris holds that day-to-day organizing by Webster and other division leaders forced Pullman to the bargaining table.
Spero, Sterling D., and Abram L. Harris. The Black Worker: The Negro and the Labor Movement. Repr. New York: Atheneum, 1974.
Originally published in 1921. Written in what union members later called the “dark days,” the authors are highly critical of Randolph’s leadership, which relied too much on media rather than day-to-day organizing and had little hope in the BSCP’s prospects for victory.
Wilson, Joseph F. Tearing Down the Color Bar: An Analysis and Documentary History of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. New York: Columbia University Press, 1989.
Based on records of meetings, conventions, and events, this particularly useful volume captures the speeches and off-the-cuff remarks of leaders, union members, and allies during the 1950s. For example, the Fifteenth Anniversary Conference of the Provisional Committee for the Organization of Colored Locomotive Firemen, Switchmen and Brakemen, in 1955 offers a window into the efforts to dismantle occupational segregation by race (see also Arnesen 2001, cited under Black Railroad Workers and Black Workers in the United States).
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