August 2010, Week 4


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Mon, 23 Aug 2010 21:22:12 -0400
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First Black Labor Union Marks Milestone

Black Radio Network August 22, 2010



On August 25th, 1925 the trajectory of African American
and American history was changed forever. On that date,
a group of Pullman porters formed the Brotherhood of
Sleeping Car Porters, America's first African American
labor union.

One of those porters, 99-year-old Linus Scott,
described the job as "miles of smiles, years of
struggle." This 85th anniversary celebrates the life
and work of this remarkable group of men.

The founding of the Brotherhood was an important
milestone in the labor movement, which had previously
been all white. But more importantly, it laid the
foundation for the modern civil rights movement, by
proving that blacks could organize and achieve tangible

The Pullman porters worked on the Pullman train sleeper
cars. They greeted passengers, carried luggage, made
the beds, tidied the cars, served food and drink,
shined shoes and were available night and day to wait
on the passengers. Since they often worked 20-hour long
days and were paid only $67.50 a month, they depended
on tips to make enough money to support their families.

Linus J. Scott, 99, is a retired Pullman porter whose
personal story illustrates the importance of the
Brotherhood: "We went through miles of smiles and years
of struggle. The porters were polite to the passengers,
so that would be the miles of smiles, because all the
times it wasn't easy but they had to smile anyway,
because of the way some of the passengers would treat
them. Some people were unkind and thought they could do
anything and everything. The years of struggle, we had
to raise a family, because we have four children."

Miles of Smiles, Years of Struggle is the title of a
one hour documentary film honoring the porters and
being released for home video on this 85th anniversary
of the founding of the Brotherhood. The film is based
on interviews with eight porters and is narrated by
Rosina Tucker, the 100-year-old wife of a porter.

Despite the poor pay and working conditions, the
porters themselves were often considered to be the best
and brightest of their communities, many from small
towns in the American south. This image is beautifully
represented in the pride shown by Paul Robeson, playing
a Pullman porter in the film Emperor Jones, as he
departs his hometown for a life on the rails.

The Brotherhood was formed when a small group of
porters went to A. Philip Randolph and sought his help
in the creation of a union of porters. Randolph was the
publisher of The Messenger, a newspaper that campaigned
for black rights. The union struggled for twelve years,
even threatening a strike, before forcing the Pullman
Company to agree to a labor contract in 1937.

Pullman porter E.D. Nixon was the instigator of the
Montgomery bus boycott, the protest that brought Martin
Luther King into the civil rights movement. But more
broadly, the organization of the Brotherhood proved to
leadership in the black community of mid-century
America that organization and social protest could
produce change.

In the late 1960s, the Brotherhood was absorbed into a
larger union. So the men like Linus Scott, porters who
were members of the original union, are now quite old
and few in number. A great, largely unknown chapter in
American history is quickly fading from living memory.


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