What Are Some Facts About Pullman Porters in the 1920s?

In the 1920s, Pullman porters were all blacks who worked long hours for poor wages and were denigrated because of their race. In 1925, a group of porters took initial steps toward establishing the union for Pullman porters that would become known as the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.

In the 1920s, about 20,000 blacks worked for the Pullman Company as sleeping car porters on railroads. Although it was one of the better paying jobs available to the black community, it was far inferior to employment opportunities offered to whites. Pullman porters typically worked for 20 hours and slept for four. They spent part of their time doing unpaid tasks and had to pay for their uniforms, accommodation and food out of their salaries. If passengers destroyed or stole railway property, the porters were liable for the cost. White people called all Pullman porters "George," after George Pullman, who founded the company.

At the time, many unions excluded black people. The Pullman Company kept spies among the porters, and any employee suggesting union organization was automatically fired. Previous attempts of porters to form unions had failed. In 1925, five veteran porters selected A. Philip Randolph, a black activist who was not a Pullman porter who could not be fired, to organize and lead the union. In the following years, the fledgling union slowly grew in membership, and the BSCP was finally certified by the National Mediation Board and the American Federation of Labor in 1935.