Hidden history: Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters

First of a three-part story

Related story: Women helped build porters’ Brotherhood 

This is the first installment of a story about African Americans who fought for dignity and equal rights on the U.S. railways as railroad sleeping car porters and maids. Jim Crow prevented many of the porters from working in their trained professions as doctors, lawyers and teachers. Some of the workers went on to create and publish African American-oriented newspapers, including Cecil E. Newman, publisher of the Minneapolis Spokesman and St. Paul Recorder.

The latest of the Untold Labor History Series, coordinated by Friends of the St. Paul Library, featured a part of history that seems to be seldom written in books or excluded from curriculum in grade levels elementary school to college. This is a true foundation of the Civil Rights Movement, and it even includes Black history right here in the Twin Cities.

Victoria Hopwood, project manager, MN Dept. of Transportation (Reginald Johnson/MSR News)

An examination of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters was presented on May 18, at the Rondo Community Outreach Library at 418 North Dale in West St. Paul. The program was sponsored by the Minnesota Association of Professional Employees (MAPE) and presented by Dr. James Robinson, great grandson of a sleeping car porter; University of Minnesota African American Studies professor Yuichiro Onishi; and historian Dr. William P. Jones.

Victoria Hopwood, project manager for the Minnesota Department of Transportation and an active member of the Untold Stories planning committee, moderated the program. Hopwood’s father served on the Empire Builder from the 1930s to the 1970s.

The history of sleeping car porters intersects many other aspects of history including the development of increased traffic on the railroad, racism, social and economic status, politics, and the development of unions.

Why and how it all began

A Pullman Porter from Pullman, Chicago. (Public domain/Wikipedia)

The Pullman Company was founded by George Mortimer Pullman in 1867 to manufacture and lease luxury, sleeping and dining cars featuring all the essential assets of home. The idea came about after what Pullman described as “an extremely uncomfortable overnight train ride” from Buffalo to Westfield, New York.

In the era of railroads, Pullman saw the potential for profit by marketing a more comfortable passenger service for long distance travel. In 1857, Pullman developed a partnership with former New York state senator and good friend Benjamin C. Field to build and operate several sleeping cars.

Pullman and Field secured a contract from the Chicago, Alton and St. Louis Railroad to develop a more comfortable sleeping car; they began by altering and improving two moderately successful cars.

Sleeping cars became the Pullman Company’s signature; they were elegant with outstanding service by porters and maids, using only African American workers. By World War I, 12,000 porters were employed by Pullman. The rail cars were nicknamed “the palace on wheels.”

In 1863, Pullman built the Springfield and Pioneer to the tune of $18,000. In 1868, he launched the Delmonico, the world’s first sleeping car devoted to fine cuisine, with first-rate accommodations from recently freed former house slaves serving as porters, waiters, chambermaids, entertainers and valets.

The service of car porters also made history in St. Paul as a major railway center. In 1880, St. Paul was home to about 490 African Americans; by 1910, their numbers had grown to approximately 3,150. Many of them supported their families as Pullman porters.

According to Robinson’s research, he stumbled across an early Black newspaper called the Western Appeal, edited by John Quincy Adams [not the U.S. president]. The publication became the official organ of the United Brotherhood of Railway Porters.

“On November 12, 1887, the Appeal cited the founding in St. Paul of Lodge #5, of the United Brotherhood of Railway Porters of North America, the earliest known recorded union of Porters, organized for a moral purpose,” Robinson reported. “African American railroaders formed associations among themselves and several Black Minnesotans held national offices in the United Brotherhood.”

Chicago was the railroad hub for the nation and the Midwest. However, Pullman was still a car company and not a railroad company. The Pacific railroad had not yet been built to reach the West Coast or to link railroad service to Chicago through Minneapolis and St Paul. The United Brotherhood was also established in the cities of St. Louis, Omaha, Denver, Boston and Baltimore, with the makings of a national union.

Pullman turned his Pioneer sleeper car into a marketing strategy with the death of Abraham Lincoln’s wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, by allowing the car to transfer her body after she collapsed and died following the death of her husband.

Professor James Robinson (Reginald Johnson/MSR News)

Dr. Robinson noted that on August 7, 1900, The Seattle Republican reported that 500 porters organized a union headquarters in Pittsburgh, PA affiliated with the National Colored Men’s Railroad Association. “In 1910, after the Seattle Exposition, several other organizations attempted to bring together Black railroad workers.”

Various representatives of the Black press, including The Boston Negro, endorsed the organized movement among porters in 1906, calling for porters to form a benefit society.

Many of the porters worked in undesirable conditions with less than minimum pay, receiving a monthly wage of $27.50, while their White counterparts organized themselves into [racially motivated] exclusive unions. Those unions made three times more than the Black unions with a base monthly pay of $70.

Eventually, a Pullman’s Company Employment Representation Plan was founded in 1920. In 1925, 55 porters united to form the Brother Sleeping Car Porter District 11. In mid-January 1926, Paul L Caldwell and Frank Boyd called two consecutive meetings in St. Paul. These meetings were held at Welcome Hall on St. Anthony Avenue and Farrington Hall in St Paul. The car porters held their first meeting on January 26, 1926, at Welcome Hall on Farrington and St. Anthony Streets.

Katie McWatt, wife of Arthur McWatt, played her part in the labor movement by organizing the Lady’s Auxiliary as a local support group. She became leader of the Lady’s Auxiliary as its local and national officer. The McWatts were some of the biggest forces for civil rights in St. Paul until their deaths


Coming next week: Part two of “Hidden history: Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters” will be about the porter maids and about marches for equality in Washington, D.C.

Ivan B. Phifer welcomes readers’ responses to ivan.b.phifer@gmail.com.

One Comment on “Hidden history: Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters”

  1. My grandfather (William James Costen) was a private car porter for the Union Pacific Railroad out of Omaha, Nebraska in the late 1800’s to 1939. I, (William Hollis Costen) was a porter also on the Union Pacific Railroad from 1965-1969)

Comments are closed.