One of the wonders of modern transportation that advertisers at the turn of the twentieth century communicated through pictures was the compact luxury of railroad sleeping cars, stressing how they offered the comforts of home and more.
Often shown as a side feature are the porters who tended to passengers’ needs. African-American sleeping car porters, however, played a central role in African-American labor organizing in the first decades of the twentieth century, and organizing for change in labor practices led to change in other realms.
The Pullman Palace Car Company, which produced the sleeping cars, paid railroads to attach the cars to their trains and employed the porters. Labor conditions for the porters were harsh and porters’ pay largely depended upon tips from passengers. Although the Pullman Company made a point of its benevolence to employees and their communities, the company consistently undermined porters’ efforts to unionize in the first decades of the century.
In 1925, Pullman porters made another attempt to organize, forming the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP) and electing A. Philip Randolph (not a Pullman employee) as their leader. The BSCP became the first African-American labor organization to receive a charter from the American Federation of Labor.
A. Philip Randolph and other leaders of the BSCP built on their organizing experience to demand jobs and equal rights for African Americans. Randolph was instrumental in organizing the 1963 March on Washington.
Public transportation became a focus for labor and civil rights demands from the late nineteenth century onwards. Sometimes by looking closely into the details of a picture, even if those details were not central to the picture maker, one gains access to a rich and complex story that was quite central to the nation’s history.
- View more photographs highlighting railroad sleeping car travel. Cartoons from the turn of the century sometimes put sleeping car porters front and center in highly caricatured portrayals. View covers of Puck magazine featuring such portrayals.
- The Library of Congress holds the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters Records [view the Manuscript Division finding aid], as well as the papers of some of its leaders. Visual materials were transferred to the Prints & Photographs Division. View the descriptions: Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters visual materials and A. Philip Randolph visual materials.
- Rosa Parks famously took her civil rights stand on a public bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Explore information about newly received materials relating to her life and legacy and view other Library of Congress resources relating to her.
- View pictures of additional civil rights leaders in our illustrated list, “Images of Twentieth Century African American Activists: A Select List.”