Women helped build porters’ Brotherhood

Their hidden history also needs telling

Second of a three-part story

In this 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 the work of porter maids, their organizations and unions, and the March on Washington.

Various groups of porters had tried over the years to form a porters’ union but failed largely because the Pullman Company either isolated the instigators or, worse, fired them. In 1925, Ashley L. Totten introduced A. Philip Randolph to a meeting of porters in New York City and asked Randolph to accept the job of general organizer of a porters’ union, where he became president.

Professor Yuichiro Onishi Reginald Johnson/MSR News)

An examination of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP) was presented on May 18, at the Rondo Community Outreach Library at 418 North Dale in West St. Paul, part of the Untold Labor History Series. During the event, University of Minnesota African American Studies Professor Yuichiro Onishi further described and analyzed the roles of the porter maids, including the organizations created and how they assisted the male porters.

“Black women locally took on very important roles as union organizers, even as they participated in organizations built apart from gender,” Onishi said. “They were usually allocated to the secondary auxiliary roles, but took to center stage as union organizers.

Helena Wilson, wife of porter Benjamin Wilson, was a leader, organizer and creator of the Colored Women’s Economic Council, which started in the BSCP.  This council organized wives of porters, maids and relatives with the purpose of educating the community about trade unionism. Wilson was elected to the Chicago chapter of the WEC in 1931.

The Pullman Company often planted spies throughout the neighborhood; porters did not dare speak out in public or reveal involvement with the Brotherhood. This made Wilson and members of the Economic Council a critical voice for the Brotherhood in the labor organizing process.

Wilson and the Council also contributed to fundraising endeavors in the form of bake sales, card games, and dances. These efforts sustained BSCP members and their families during the Depression.

According to the State Historical Society of Iowa, the maids and wives of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters initially organized in separate Women’s Economic Councils to raise funds for the union. They eventually pursued political and consumer activities, roles that included organizing porters; investigating racial discrimination in employment, housing, and consumer services; and making common cause with White and other Black trade unionists. These groups of organized Black women were known as “The Ladies Auxiliary.”

“It is important to keep in mind the contradiction of the highly gendered specific organization and gender segregation [of the BSCP],” Onishi stated. “Maids who worked alongside porters were often excluded outside the organization. It was a very male-centered leadership organization.”

Asa Philip Randolph (Wikipedia)

American labor organizer Lillian Herstein believed firmly that women should have equality in the workplace and the union and disagreed with Randolph in practice of jobs being allocated by gender. The Brotherhood’s fight for an increase in income seemed linked to the pride of men as well as to women’s roles in the union.

“The contract that the sleeping car porters signed with the Pullman Company in 1937 was the first time a majority Black union signed a legally sanctioned employment contract with a company,” historian Dr. William P. Jones told to the audience. “It was a significant step for the porters and had a tremendous ripple effect.”

This effect included a grievance procedure, overtime pay, and a $12-dollar-a-month raise. It was estimated that the increases cost the Pullman Company a million dollars. This 1937 contract established A. Phillip Randolph as a national leader and gained him wide recognition as a civil rights leader.

The Ladies Auxiliary gained legislative experience working in consumer movements and the March on Washington Movement (MOWM). In 1941, Randolph made a call for a national demonstration by African Americans in Washington, D.C.

Randolph took further action by forming a coalition with leaders of the NAACP and the National Urban League as well as with other prominent African Americans. They formed the Negroes’ Committee to March on Washington for Equal Participation in National Defense.

On May 1, they issued the “Call to Negro America” to March on Washington for Jobs and Equal Participation in National Defense on July 1, 1941. Randolph made sure to let the country know via the Black press that this march was being organized by the BSCP. The press estimated that a few hundred thousand people attended the March on Washington.

By this time, the country was entering WWII, and the March on Washington was encouraging resistance across the nation. “The movement of draft resistance was prevalent among Black college students at this time,” Jones reported. “[Their reasoning] was they were not going to sign up to fight for democracy abroad when they had none here. This, in addition to the March on Washington, was seen as a threat to the government.

Members of the National Council of Negro Women (Public Domain)

“The woman’s auxiliary organized the National Council of Negro Women, a network of Black women’s clubs,” Jones reported. “In the 1950s it was the largest Black organization with 800,000 members. These organizations were critical for the BSCP to organize on Washington.”

Initially, the federal government did their best to ignore Randolph’s pursuit and refused to meet with him. The liberal Roosevelt administration put great pressure on the organizers to call it off, as Franklin D. Roosevelt did not want the U.S. government to be exposed as a racist, oppressive regime just as it was gearing up for entering a world war supposedly for “freedom and democracy.”

Finally, Roosevelt issued an executive order banning workplace discrimination. “At the time, this [executive order] was compared to the Emancipation Proclamation, as it was the first time since the Reconstruction Era that the government had done anything to intervene on the behalf of Black workers,” Jones said.


Related story: Hidden history: Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters

Next week will cover the 1963 March on Washington, the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the role of Black Press in the BSCP. 

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