Conclusion of a four-part series
In this final installment of our series about African Americans who fought for dignity and equal rights on the U.S. railways as railroad sleeping car porters and maids, we explore how the porters, traveling by rail across the country, were instrumental in spreading news about African American communities and starting up newspapers to create a national Black Press.
The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters was more than butlers, maids, waiters and servers. Their work, which involved much travel, enabled them to transport and spread news to cities along the way.
The Pullman porters had an alliance with five prominent African American newspapers from 1914 (at the start of the Great War) to 1939 (the end of the Harlem Renaissance): the Baltimore Afro-American, Chicago Defender, New York Age, New York Amsterdam News, and Pittsburgh Courier. (Although the above-mentioned publications were Pullman porters alliances, only a few of the publications had porters who were managing editors or founders. Moreover, several of the publications listed below are identified as alliances but do have managing editors who happened to be porters).
One of the earlier Black newspapers, the Western Appeal (briefly mentioned in the first Brotherhood article), founded in St Paul, Minnesota, was a published weekly from 1885 to 1923. It was one of the most successful African American newspapers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In 1889, the newspaper changed its name to The Appeal to reflect its expanded geographic scope.
The Western Appeal was one of the earlier newspapers to report on the Pullman Porter and the Black railroad movement history. “The Appeal became the official organ of the United Brotherhood of Railway Porters,” said Dr. James Robinson, U of M African American Studies.
While serving as a Pullman porter, Cecil Newman turned his spare corner in the Pullman car into an office to type his stories.
One of the Appeal’s editors was Roy Wilkins, a prominent activist in the Civil Rights Movement in the United States from the 1930s to the 1970s. After moving to New York, Wilkins became assistant NAACP secretary under Walter Francis White. After W.E.B. DuBois parted ways with the NAACP, Wilkins replaced him as editor of The Crisis, the official magazine of the NAACP.
While Wilkins was not a porter, he worked with A. Philip Randolph, founder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, and Arnold Aronson, a leader of the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, to found the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights (LCCR). The LCCR was a coalition charged by its diverse membership of more than 200 national organizations to promote and protect the civil and human rights of all persons in the United States.
In 1950, The Messenger, founded in New York City in 1917, was an early 20th century political and literary magazine by and for African American people in the United States. It was important to the flowering of the Harlem Renaissance and initially promoted a socialist political view. The Messenger was co-founded in New York City by Chandler Owen and A. Philip Randolph in August 1917.
The Messenger became a propaganda vehicle for the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in addition to campaigning on behalf of the unions. Over time, Randolph convinced Black leaders, clergymen, and newspaper editors that the Pullman Company’s control masked what was, in fact, a submissive position for Blacks within the company and a subtle repetition of the master-slave relationship. The magazine published their demands, which included a living wage instead of tipping, a 240-hour work month, and four to six hours of rest each night.
In 1905, Robert Sengstacke Abbott, an alumnus of Howard University, founded and became publisher of the Chicago Defender. The Defender was considered the “most important” paper of what was then known as the Negro press. Abbott’s newspaper reported and campaigned against Jim Crow-era violence and urged Blacks in the American South to come north in what became the Great Migration.
A key part of his distribution network was African American railroad porters, who were highly respected among Blacks. By 1925, they organized a union as the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. They often sold or distributed the paper on trains. Defender’s circulation reached 50,000 by 1916; 125,000 by 1918; and more than 200,000 by the early 1920s.
Another porter, also a journalist, was Cecil E. Newman, who would later become publisher and editor of the Minneapolis Spokesman and St. Paul Recorder newspapers. In 1948, Newman would become president of the Minneapolis Urban League.
Newman heard from a good friend that the Pullman Company needed extra porters, which began his travels around the United States. Throughout his travels, he kept thinking about the field of journalism. Being a porter was for him only a temporary means to an end.
Along with his porter job, Newman launched The Twin Cities Herald in 1927 at the young age of 24. While launching The Twin Cities Herald, he became the “porter in charge,” earning an extra $17 a month; the job change was not something other Blacks were allowed to do.
Newman created multiple avenues for his publication. He was a multi-tasker: “I didn’t have enough money to begin one newspaper, so I began publishing two,” Newman stated in his 1969 biography Cecil E. Newman: Newspaper Publisher.
While serving as a Pullman porter, he turned his spare corner in the Pullman car into an office to type his stories.
Eventually, following the demise of the Twin Cities Herald, Newman resigned his porter job and pursued journalism whole-heartedly. In the 1950s, Newman was able to relocate his newspaper business to a new building especially constructed for that purpose at 3744 4th Avenue South in Minneapolis, where it remains today. In 2000, The Minneapolis Spokesman and St. Paul Recorder merged into one publication, the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder or MSR.
Many Twin Cities-area African American men and women still share memories of having been Pullman porters and maids. We hope this series of articles will help bring to that “hidden history” the kind of recognition these pioneers deserve as part of the Twin Cities story.
Ivan Phifer welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.