This day in 1925, activist A. Philip Randolph led the organization of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, a campaign Randolph declared nothing less than “a significant landmark in the history and struggle of the Negro workers in America.” For Randolph personally, it offered the chance for him to test his ideas on the relationship between his socialist beliefs and the race problems he had dedicated his life to solving.
As Cornelius L. Bynum shows in his book Philip A. Randolph and the Struggle for Civil Rights, the African American workers mostly eschewed big picture concerns. They wanted relief from exploitation and indignity:
[N]ot only were porters poorly compensated for the services they provided, but they were also required to work long hours. In addition to the duties they performed during the day attending to passengers’ needs, on long trips porters were expected to be equally available to passengers at night. In many instances, this meant that they got little or no sleep. For the four hundred hours of road service it required porters to put in each month, Pullman paid an average wage of only $78.11. A significant portion of porters’ time went to preparing Pullman cars before passengers arrived for boarding and cleaning up the cabins after each trip. Yet, they were not paid for this time.
Likewise, they were not paid for layovers on long trips or for return trips to their home stations when no passengers were riding in their cars, a procedure called “deadheading.” Porters were also expected to provide their own meals and sleeping quarters on overnight runs. While services like shoe shining were part of a porter’s job, each man was responsible for supplying his own polish, brushes, and clothes.
Working conditions and compensation were even worse for the two hundred or so maids that Pullman employed during this period. According to a pamphlet titled “The Pullman Porter” . . . Pullman maids received a minimum wage of only $70 a month. While the average porter earned on average about $58 a month in tips to supplement his paycheck, opportunities to earn tips for Pullman maids were “necessarily limited.” Even though they like porters were frequently required to make overnight runs, Pullman made no sleeping provisions for its maids, and maids were given even “shorter rest periods than porters on the same run.”