Fighting Fear with Commitment: The First Black Workers’ Union in the US & the Railroads

Fear has many colors and ways of being in the world. It does not just show up as cowering in a corner of the room in hiding, or shivers, or wide-eyes.

Fear also shows up in refusal, anger, resentment, maintenance and often in superiority. Especially when we look at the issues of democracy in so-called ‘democratic’ societies, we must understand that the elites who first founded the United States, were only speaking about democratic relations AMONG THEMSELVES. They owned slaves, they excluded women, and we know that all were Christian of certain denominations. All men were created equal except………… and women are in the home. Sexual orientation as an identity was non-existent as a political category, but we know that many of them had rich sex lives and only the heterosexual versions are told. To protect THE MAINTENANCE of the controls over what is exploited, and its link with survival (maintaining privileges within a vast social structure), the fear of losing this would create manifestations other than that of a one-dimensional mode of being scared.

However, this does not take away from the IDEALS and hopes of a democratizing society, which would always never be completely arrived at in any location, but perhaps increasingly practiced as a process as we make democracy LIVE EVERYDAY with commitment and struggle, instead of merely a dream or practiced only by government laws. Many philosophers and political scientists consider ‘democracy’ to be a social experiment and not a given. However, we must understand that throughout history, many of the societies that were systematically destroyed by the European expansion and US empire-building, had egalitarian societies. There are arguments that surround the US Constitution, as it is eerily similar to the Cherokee codes of community which pre-dates the US Constitution, of course. As we know, the histories and realities and many of our ‘Truths’ are not what we think they are simply because the empire-builders, the dominant class, and those who govern, largely create our realities for us by the control of education and the institutions, including what is ‘true’ or not.

In the building of the colonial nations and their colonies, the United States, much of Europe, Africa and Australia/New Zealand were created by vast movements of people and goods starting from the 18th century. This was primarily done through the invention of the steam engine. Steam ships and the railroads became powerful forces in the rapid industrializing of nations and in expansion as a category of ‘freedom.’ In this freedom, others under the military and economic violence of this system of superiority, were systematically assimilated or killed, in general.

When George Pullman invented the Pullman car, which essentially made the wealthy class able to travel in luxury and isolation from the other people of lower classes, the building of magnificent hotels, tourist industries, iron and steel and coal empires, land transportation connecting hotels to residential and business areas, and all forms of paper-making and other industries flourished in order to support these mechanisms that spread wealth and forms of power throughout most areas of the globe. Along with this, of course, was the strengthening of military flexibility and ways of warfare. The Pullman cars, with their luxurious interiors and beautiful craftsmanship, were one of the most important aspects of maintaining elite self-identification, expanding tourism and travel to the middle and lower classes of society, and the ability to move the elite around to areas of the continents in which they could do business.

After the freedom of the African slaves was passed into law in the United States, many of the free slaves were hired by George Pullman and the pullman company, to serve as high-class servants on these hotels on wheels, capitalizing on the maintenance of their skills as slaves. According to famous railroad writers, including the great Lucius Beebe and Charles Clegg (a well-known gay couple and famous elite writers in their day), many of the elites rode on certain trains because certain railroad porters were kind, generous, entertaining, and spotless in their service. Some of these trains were, among the elites, called by the Porters’ names! The railroad porters were not just servants, but were an important aspect in raising the prestige of each of the railroads competing for their share of the wealth. The New York Central Railroad, the Pennsylvania Railroad, the Union Pacific, the Santa Fe, the Southern Pacific, and others, glorified their high-speed passenger trains and built magnificent train terminals and hotels next them, rivaling and sometimes surpassing the size and grandeur of state offices. Movie stars and song stars, sports stars and the high officials of the corporations that ran the world from the 1900s to the 1950s, all traveled mainly by rail, and the railroad companies had to stay in top shape. The Pullman porters were the personal connection between the train and the passengers.

The railroad companies were among the largest employers of blacks in the United States in the middle of the twentieth century.  The offered a way for blacks to travel, to meet with and be among the elite of elites, and offered a source of pride and steady income for the families of the porters and the dining car waiters.  Baggage handlers and railyard workers and other manual labor positions in the railroad also employed blacks.  However, the porter position was regarded highly because of its ‘classy’ image.  Along with the strong way for black families to join the middle class, by saving their dollar or two dollar-a-day salary, this offered the beginnings for public awareness regarding the status of blacks in post-slave periods into the twentieth century.

As one could guess, most of the Black porters were treated as third class and inhuman by most passengers much of the time. The racism was mainstream, legitimate in this way. Passengers would be the first ones to get anything they wanted while the porters were to be quiet and not cause trouble, even in the face of overt hostility and condescending attitudes. If they were to resist or even speak back in any fashion, they would be fired. However, most of the time, most of the porters were there to serve and most passengers would take advantage of their kindly and professional porters for their needs on the train or at the stations where the trains departed and arrived. The porters were not allowed to speak back to any customers. If they did, they were fired. At the famous Penn Central station in New York, for instance, as many as six hundred passengers trains departed per day. It was a phenomenal time for this new and beautiful way of traveling. On these travels, the porters endured and served. The black porters repeatedly asked management for changes in their status in the business, and were continually rebuffed. They began their meetings to unionize at this point.

The black pullman workers, were subordinate to the white conductors who kept things smoothly running between their association with the engineer who ran the train, and the passengers and mechanics on board. The black pullmans worked longer hours, were paid about half of the wages of the conductors, and often had to endure things that conductor would not. At this time, politically, there were no rights that they could exercise as workers.

Forming unions were a huge movement around the world and for much of the United States during these times. Of course, George Pullman and the administration, refused to grant the black workers their rights, using many violent tactics from stalling to sending ‘thugs’ to their homes to threaten and cajole, and refusal to speak with them. The workers held firm and continued to attempt a path for their rights as workers in the US.

A. Phillip Randolph (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A._Philip_Randolph) , a union organizer whose first love was acting, became an intellectual and activist in the Socialist Party and helped the Pullman porters gain their rights in 1925 when they won their right to become a union and also gained the rights they fought for. In 1919, the US Attorney General called him: ‘The Most Dangerous Negro in America.” How can a person fighting for equal rights be dangerous in a democratic country? Because the United States was founded on equality for the leaders, no the masses. Equality is a term for a hope, but even among the elite, this is a problem term and very difficult. However, against the Black Americans, this divide and subordination is even more intense, continuing today.

Fighting with the Commitment for rights is the only way. But this commitment is not merely a move upward in a ladder to equality, it is more about survival. Especially if those struggling for rights are ‘the other,’ such as those of Black African ancestry in US mainstream society, who are not acknowledged along peaceful grounds by the dominant group. The way these workers, and millions of others today, are working, is not sustainable. We can see the slow decay that is happening presently around the world, due to the impact of exploitation in its many forms.

Pullman Porters . org – National Railroad Museum : http://www.pullmanporters.org/

Pullman Palace Car Company Collection 1867-1979 : http://americanhistory.si.edu/archives/d8181.htm

Pullman Project : http://pullmanproject.com/

A. Phillip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum: http://www.aphiliprandolphmuseum.com/

Lucius Beebe & Charles Clegg :  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lucius_Beebe

Photos courtesy of: Pullman Porters Museum.org and Jack Delano, US Library of Congress


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