Massachusetts

A. Philip Randolph Leads Sleeping Car Porters Out of Slavery

Of the thousands of people who go in and out of Boston’s Back Bay commuter rail station every day, how many pass the bronze statue of A. Philip Randolph with no idea that the 1963 March on Washington was his idea?

Randolph was both a great labor leader and a great civil rights leader, not coincidental when you consider racial justice means nothing without economic justice. At least that’s what Randolph – and his protégé Martin Luther King, Jr., thought. The 1963 March on Washington – Randolph’s idea – was, after all, the March for Jobs and Freedom.

Leaders of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. A. Philip Randolph is seated in the center; John Lewis is on the far right. Photo courtesy National Archives.

Randolph is credited with pushing President Franklin Roosevelt to ban discrimination in the defense industry and President Harry Truman to integrate the military. Considered the most important black leader in the 1930s and 1940s, he helped bring thousands of railroad sleeping car porters into the middle class.

Though A. Philip Randolph grew up in Jacksonville, lived in New York City and made his mark on Washington, he also had an impact in Boston’s African-American community. Even today, his nine-foot sculpture in the train station may inspire commuters who take the time to read his words at the base: “Freedom is never granted; It is won. Justice is never given; it is exacted.”

A. Philip Randolph

Randolph was born in Crescent City, Fla., on April 15, 1889, to a minister and a seamstress. He grew up in Jacksonville, where he and his brother graduated from an academic high school for African Americans.

He moved to New York in 1911, where he got involved in the labor movement and started a magazine called The Messenger. People considered it radical because it opposed lynching, the military draft and segregation.

A. Philip Randolph in 1942

Randolph got a taste of organizing in 1914, when he took a job as a waiter aboard a steamboat, the Paul Revere, which ran between Fall River and New York. He lied about his experience, and messed up one of his orders. He was reprimanded and put on probation, but he didn’t last beyond the return trip. Waiters and kitchen help had to sleep in a cramped, foul space below deck– the so-called “glory hole.” Randolph tried to organize the kitchen staff and waiters to demand improved sleeping conditions. Instead, he got fired on his return to New York.

Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters

In 1925, a group of Pullman porters approached Randolph in Harlem and asked them to help form the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. The porters worked for the Pullman Company, which had a virtual monopoly on operating railroad sleeping cars. The company only hired black men as porters and had more black employees than any other U.S. company.

Randolph accepted the challenge, with the motto, “Fight or Be Slaves.”

A Pullman porter, Chicago, 1943. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

George Walker of Marlboro, Mass., a porter, joined that first year, risking dismissal by the company. He earned $67 a month for 400 hours. “You ain’t supposed to get any sleep,” one Pullman porter testified before the U.S. Commission on Industrial Relations in 1915.

Within a year, 3,000 Pullman porters — 51 percent — joined the union, but the company refused to negotiate or even recognize it. Federal mediators ignored the Brotherhood’s complaints. In 1926, Randolph planned a strike, but when he heard the company had 5,000 strikebreakers on hand, he called it off.

That cost the union half of its members. Then came the Great Depression, and membership fell to 658 in 1933.

Organizing Boston

Randolph realized he needed community support, because, he said, the company ‘cannot stand up against the Brotherhood and the Community too.’ In Boston, he enlisted the help of the black churches and local civic organizations.

A music professor, John Orth, helped organize a citizen’s committee of black and white New Englanders to support Randolph’s cause. They included Felix Frankfurter, then a Harvard professor, and journalist William Monroe Trotter. The committee put out pamphlets proclaiming their faith in the justice of the cause of the Pullman porters, including one that linked Randolph’s cause with New England’s ‘glorious and illustrious abolitionist heritage.

Randolph also needed President Franklin Roosevelt, who signed a fair labor law in 1934 that gave the Brotherhood more legal protection. Membership grew to 7,000 and forced the Pullman Company to the bargaining table.

Finally, A Contract

By 1937, the union negotiated its first contract with the Pullman Company. George Walker got a raise to $89.50 a month. By the end of World War II, porters earned $175 a week.

“Working on the trains was what helped me educate my children,” said Bennie Bullock of Mattapan in a 1980s interview. Bullock echoed the experience of other Boston porters; his three children all had college educations and went on to professional careers.

A. Philip Randolph statue in Boston Back Bay’s train station.

After decades of leading the civil rights movement, Randolph died in his apartment on May 16, 1979. On Oct. 8, 1988, retired Pullman car operators and dining car waiters attended the unveiling of the statue of A. Philip Randolph in Boston’s Back Bay train station.

Photo of A. Philip Randolph statue courtesy Boston MBTA under Creative Commons license CC BY-ND 2.0.

With thanks to A. Philip Randolph and Boston’s African-American Railroad Workers by James R. Green and Robert C. Haydn.

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