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First Black Labor Union Marks Milestone

 CHARLOTTESVILLE -- 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.

 



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