Remembering the Largest Black Union
With the death of the oldest living Pullman porter, we take a look at A. Philip Randolph and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.
Lyn Hughes -- the author of An Anthology of Respect: The Pullman Porters National Historic Registry of African American Railroad Employees and founder of the "75 for the 75th" campaign celebrating the historic achievement -- told The Root that "Randolph demonstrated his political genius" in employing tactics that gave African Americans more opportunities to brighten their economic future.
Pullman porters, for instance, armed with their collective bargaining agreement, became one of the most prosperous classes in black America. "Many -- like E.D. Nixon in Montgomery, Ala., who, with Rosa Parks, organized and planned the famous 1955 bus boycott -- were also leaders in their communities," said Hughes, who also founded the A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum in Chicago.
With their salaries, Hughes said, Pullman porters could afford to send their children to college. "If they wanted credit at any store, as soon as they said they were Pullman porters, they got it," she added.
Gwen Green, an 87-year-old Los Angeles resident whose grandfather Robert Lee Williams was a Pullman porter, recalled the important place the men held in black society. "They were rich," said Green, a former community-outreach director for Local 6434 of the Service Employees International Union.
Although the role of porters and waiters on trains would begin the journey toward obsolescence in the 1950s as Americans' reliance on long-distance rail travel diminished, the legacy of the Pullman porters and their union lives on. Like many of the other porters, Green's grandfather was an activist who became a national instructor for the Pullman company, helping other black men achieve success. Williams' work in the community, she said, served as her own "introduction to political activism."
Norman Hill, president emeritus of the A. Philip Randolph Institute, told The Root, "Without [Randolph's] principled leadership, the labor movement would not be the most integrated mass institution in American society."
And Randolph's work is still relevant.
African Americans "are poised to make more gains in the future," Hill said, pointing to Lee Saunders' June 2012 election as the first black president of the 1.6 million-member American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees as an example of what can be achieved if blacks focus on organizing.
F. Finley McRae is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.