Union Do's and Don'ts: Pullman Porters Unite

The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP), the first African American labor union in the United States, was established by A. Philip Randolph in August 1925 in New York City. The BSCP organized to improve the working conditions and earnings of porters and maids on Pullman Company railroad cars. Even before the BSCP arrived on the scene, however, Pullman porters and maids had created, in 1920, an organization to assist themselves: The Pullman Porters and Maids Protective Association. The Pullman Company responded with the Employee Representation Plan (ERP), a company union. Pullman Company leaders incorporated African American representation on the ERP's board in order to fracture solidarity among black workers; at the same time, the company created a climate of intimidation toward BSCP members by cultivating employee informants among porters and maids.

In this document, A. Philip Randolph addressed African American Pullman employees who sided with the company's union. He appealed to their "race pride" to persuade them away from standing with the company's union or, at the very least, from hindering the Pullman workers who supported the BSCP. If appeals to the common good didn't work, Randolph also promised that the BSCP would expose African American workers who informed on their fellows, "until you become . . . a liability to the Pullman Company." Randolph predicted all kinds of misfortune: “The company will then kick you out, your wife and children will despise you and your race will spit upon you because you have a wish-bone where a back-bone ought to be.” The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters achieved recognition from the Pullman Company in 1935, after New Deal legislation invalidated company unions and the BSCP had won support from the American Federation of Labor.

The BSCP was a vanguard organization for African American civil rights. In 1941 Randolph organized the March on Washington Movement to protest racist hiring practices in defense industries. This initiative foreshadowed the civil rights actions of the 1950s and 1960s. With Bayard Rustin, Randolph also organized the 1963 March on Washington.

This document appears in the digital collection The Struggle for Civil Rights in the Urban North, curated by Newberry Director of Continuing Education Rachel Bohlmann and Kevin Boyle, professor of history at Northwestern University. In honor of Black History Month, the Newberry recognizes the great strides made by the BSCP in opposition to the inequality they faced from the Pullman Company.