85th Anniversary of the founding of America’s first Black labor union

Written by admin   // September 9, 2011   // 0 Comments

Article courtesy of CopyLine News Magazine

Charlottesville, VA (BlackNews.com) —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 results.

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.

Miles of Smiles, Years of Struggle is available from Paul Wagner Films. For more information, visit
www.paulwagnerfilms.com

 


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