Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters

The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters was the first national union of any profession to be organized by African Americans. For over five decades, the brotherhood worked to oppose racism and class prejudice in hiring practices, both within and outside the transportation industry, and many of its members became leaders of the 1960’s Civil Rights movement.

The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters was secretly organized on August 25, 1925, under the leadership of journalist and activist A. Philip Randolph, A. PhilipRandolph. It would eventually represent some 250,000 members during its corporate existence. The four major railway-related labor unions of the time (serving engineers, firemen, trainmen, and conductors) refused to admit African Americans as members. Thus, in 1925, the predominantly Unions;African AmericansAfrican Americans;in unions[unions]African American porters lacked the rights and bargaining leverage gained by other members of the American labor force through national union representation.Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters

The union’s creation challenged the severely restrictive labor policies of the privately held Pullman Company, the chief manufacturer and operator of railroad sleeping cars in the American market. The company did not recognize the legitimacy of independent labor organizations and refused to deal with them, preferring instead to maintain a company union under its complete control. The first nine years of the brotherhood’s existence were marked by struggles not only against the company but also against white organized labor organizations such as the American Federation of Labor, which were indifferent to racially Discrimination;workplacediscriminatory hiring and workplace practices. The union also confronted a federal government that repeatedly failed to investigate allegations of racism in the labor force.

A. Philip Randolph.

(Library of Congress)

The economic impact of the Great Depression provided the brotherhood with opportunities more effectively to challenge unfair practices, and the Amended Railway Labor Act of 1934Amended Railway Labor Act of 1934 specifically outlawed company unions, requiring a company to negotiate with the union that represented a majority of its employees. Porters enjoyed a high social status within the group of service professionals such as waiters and cooks considered to perform “negro work.” This status was matched by the union’s emphasis on working to achieve racial integration and job parity in other fields outside the railway companies by forging political alliances with the federal government.

The interstate mobility of the brotherhood’s members also allowed them to use the rails as a network over which information and strategies could be widely shared. The union helped create local chapters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and distributed copies of the Chicago Defender across the South to educate prospective migrants seeking jobs in the North and Midwest about the job markets they would find in those regions.

On February 28, 1978, the brotherhood merged with the Brotherhood of Railway and Airline Clerks. This merger reflected the diminished importance of railway travel in the United States, the 1970 collapse of the Penn Central Railroad (which had merged with the Pullman Company), and a decline in the union’s membership that was due to the aging and changing employment patterns of African Americans in the national workforce.

Further Reading

  • Chateuvert, Melinda. Marching Together: Women of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998.
  • Harris, William H. Keeping the Faith: A. Philip Randolph, Milton P. Webster, and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1977.
  • Wilson, Joseph W. Tearing Down the Color Bar: A Documentary History and Analysis of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. New York: Columbia University Press, 1989.

Labor strikes

Pullman Strike


A. Philip Randolph

Transcontinental railroad

World War II