Pictures to Go: Sleeping Car Quarters and Sleeping Car Porters

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.Äč

Porter handing young woman a glass of water in railroad sleeping car. Photo by the George R. Lawrence Co., copyrighted 1905. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3c16409

Porter handing young woman a glass of water in railroad sleeping car. Photo by the George R. Lawrence Co., copyrighted 1905. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3c16409

Pullman compartment cars through trains. Lithograph by Strobridge & Co., copyrighted 1894. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pga.04174

Pullman Compartment Cars… Lithograph by Strobridge & Co., copyrighted 1894.
//hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pga.04174

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.

Portrait of A. Philip Randolph, labor leader. Photo by Gordon Parks, 1942. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8d10636

Portrait of A. Philip Randolph, labor leader. Photo by Gordon Parks, 1942. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8d10636

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.

Civil rights leaders meet with President John F. Kennedy in the oval office ... after the March on Washington, D.C. Photo by Warren K. Leffler, 1963 Aug. 28. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ds.04413

Civil rights leaders meet with President John F. Kennedy in the oval office … after the March on Washington, D.C. (A. Philip Randolph is on President Kennedy’s right). Photo by Warren K. Leffler, 1963 Aug. 28. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ds.04413

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.

Learn More:

 

4 Comments

  1. Jack C. Templeton Jr.
    February 11, 2015 at 12:42 pm

    The article was extremely informative.

  2. Jocelyn A. Chadwick, PhD
    February 11, 2015 at 3:30 pm

    I find the assets, such this one, amazingly useful and engaging for students–both high school and college. I always recommend this site to teachers.

  3. Paul Gottlieb
    February 15, 2015 at 11:28 pm

    I’ll bet that’s Gordon Parks, not Gordon Park, who took the photo of APR above.
    PG

    • Barbara Orbach Natanson
      February 18, 2015 at 7:44 am

      Thanks for catching the typographical error, which we have now fixed. The photographer was, indeed, Gordon Parks.

Add a Comment

This blog is governed by the general rules of respectful civil discourse. You are fully responsible for everything that you post. The content of all comments is released into the public domain unless clearly stated otherwise. The Library of Congress does not control the content posted. Nevertheless, the Library of Congress may monitor any user-generated content as it chooses and reserves the right to remove content for any reason whatever, without consent. Gratuitous links to sites are viewed as spam and may result in removed comments. We further reserve the right, in our sole discretion, to remove a user's privilege to post content on the Library site. Read our Comment and Posting Policy.

Required fields are indicated with an * asterisk.