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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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