On this date in 1925, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters was founded. Led by A. Philip Randolph, this labor union became the most important civil rights organization in mid-20th century America, arguably as important as the NAACP. Racism shut most jobs to black people in the early 20th century, but the Pullman Company was willing to hire them as waiters and porters on their train sleeping cars. Acquiring such a job basically put one squarely into the black middle class. Yet Pullman’s definition of these service job as black work meant replicating the servant/master relationship that defined so much African-American labor through American history. Within the African-American community, the job provided a great deal of dignity, but that dignity had to be abnegated in interactions with whites on the train. Being a porter may have been a relatively good job, but that doesn’t mean it was actually a good job. Porters were dependent on tips for most of their income, making subservience a central point to their existence. The conditions of work were poor. Salaries were low and porters had to provide their own uniforms, food, and lodging. They spent up to half of their income just maintaining themselves in the job. A. Philip Randolph was the son of a minister and seamstress. His family was well-established in the black middle of class of turn of the century Jacksonville. But that was a pretty awful time for African-Americans. The institutionalization of Jim Crow, violent repression of black political organizing, and rampant lynching defined the period. His parents were deeply involved in the community, going so far as to arm themselves to protect a prisoner from lynching when Randolph was a child. At the age of 21, in 1910, he joined the Socialist Party, founded a newspaper dedicated to issues of race and class, and organized a union of elevator operators in 1917 before turning to organizing the sleeping car porters…. It wasn’t until the Wagner Act passed that the Brotherhood was guaranteed survival and the Pullman Company finally agreed to contract in 1937. The contract achieved improved pay, overtime pay, and a shorter workweek. But even by 1937, the job of the railroad porter had begun to disappear as Americans moved to private vehicles for transportation. The union survived until 1978, when it merged with the Brotherhood of Railway, Airline, Steamship Clerks, Freight Handlers, Express, and Station Employees.
There is more on the history of the union at the link.