Miles of Smiles, Years of Struggle: The Q&A
Christopher Reed (CR): …Milton Webster. What you don’t know is, Milton Webster was the muscle we had, A. Philip Randolph. A. Philip Randolph was never a railroad worker. He was… spoke to workers, as the film mentioned. College-trained, an organizer… but there had to be a muscle man behind it, and that was Chicagoan Milton P. Webster. And I thought he learned a lot about—when I say “militant,” I mean this in a positive way—a militant posture from the 8th Infantry Regiment down at 35th and [?]. As a kid, he watched those soldiers march, early 1900s, on the south side of Chicago, Bronzeville. And he was a member of the youth organization connected with the 8th Infantry Regiment. Interesting.
And those were real men…. If you saw a shot of a porter in uniform in Harlem, very impressive. This is my grandfather. Here you see a scene I pulled out of a newspaper, of a porter with shoes—remember, the porters had to pay for the polish; any towels that were missing, they paid for. Anything that was missing was charged to them. So they had a very difficult job. And let me just say that this implicates the interest in the theater, in the Pullman porter story. There was a great production of that down at the Goodman several years ago. There is a Pullman Porter Museum not too far from here. Let me circulate some of the material. You can just pass that around…
There is a Pullman Porter Museum. You may want to go over there. And then here’s the Pullman Porter magazine that they—it’s a new magazine. Somebody put Randolph… Let me just say this before I turn the mike over to my colleague. I want to make a comment about successive generations of porters. The first wave of porters were former slaves, but as time progressed, the porters got farther and farther away from the slave mentality. Remember, people had to wear the mask daily as slaves. But every successive generation became more and more independent until you got down to the time of A. Philip Randolph, when this analysis… this analysis of this high level of self-consciousness, black America in the 1920s began to assume a “New Negro” posture.
This gentleman in the back has got on “Black Lives Matter.” The young generation—
Audience Member #1: Me? Oh I’m sorry.
Erik Gellman (EG): Would you get up and show them your shirt? These youngsters today are part of another phase of consciousness. Each successive generation becomes more and more independent and farther away from the old slave mentality. Remember, that had been a 200-year process of brainwashing. It’s been hard to eliminate. There are still Uncle Toms around, but you might want to look at this. This was an important document from 1925 explaining—it’s light enough to pass around.
Let me also mention this map, which shows you in 1937—the year that the porters were recognized by the Pullman company—this is the distribution of the black community. You have a large group of people living in what was called the south side, black south side, black belt. We call it Black Metropolis now, or Bronzeville. Way down here… is where the Pullman company was. Way down here. So the question in your mind is, did anybody who was in the middle of the ranks of the porters live in Pullman? No. They lived way up here. The porters worked on cars that were produced down there in an all-white town by whites.
But everybody lived up here. And this can be circulated. You can see the distribution of the black community… Let me say this. Porters’ strength supposedly was 20,000 by the 1930s. You heard the figure of 13,000 by World War II. There were so many porters on Chicago in 1913 that they represented 25% of the black male population. There were 7,600 black men working in the work force. That was a large percentage. Everybody worked in black Chicago. Women worked like men. I had a colleague who said, “Well, blah blah blah blah blah. You know, my mother didn’t work; I guess your mother didn’t either.” No, my mother worked. All the black women in my neighborhood worked. Black men and women always worked.
Anyway, of the 7,600 black men in the work force in 1913 in Chicago, 1,800 were porters. So you had to run into a Pullman porter on the streets of Chicago, and they looked like my grandfather would have looked. Not only gentlemanly, but may I say, proudly handsome. You want to take over?
EG: Sure, yeah. I also want to—I know we don’t have a lot of time, so if any of you have questions too…
Audience Member #2: Could I ask you a quick question? My father was a dining car waiter for 40 years on the Pennsylvania-Broadway Limited. Now was there a separate union for dining car waiters or were they all under the same umbrella?
CR: You know, that’s funny. Ismael Florey was a dining car waiter. I’m not quite sure.
EG: There was, yeah. And they were actually, in some ways, a more aggressive union, which led to some problems with the porters, because the porters were in the American Federation of Labor—the AFL—so they were a craft union. And as a result, they were a little bit conservative, versus the dining car waiters and stewards were actually—there was a period in the ‘30s, they were quite radical.
CR: The 1930s, yeah. And the porters would have been more militant, having won their success in the late ‘30s, 1937.
EG: Well, that was the one thing I was going to bring up about the film. Did you get a sense—as a historian, I’m watching the film and also analyzing it and critiquing it, right? Like, what story is it telling? Why is it—what sort of points is it making? And did you get a sense from the film why the union succeeded after 12 years?
Audience Member #4: There was federal legislation that made it possible.
EG: Which the film doesn’t really talk much about, right? The context of the New Deal, the fact that you’ve got collective bargaining, the fact that you’ve got the National Labor Relations Board in place, all of these things really made a difference too. But in line with that, I would say that the other thing the film doesn’t really talk about—and maybe this is because it was made in 1982—is the issue of politics, right? It doesn’t talk about, really, much about the radical politics of unions, socialists, communists, et cetera, which played a big role in the organization of unions in the 1930s.
And the other thing that, you know, is touched upon a little bit, but is really an interesting story, is the role of women in the porters’ union. And, certainly, the narrator in this film is such a compelling character, right, and clearly she was working around the clock in Washington to make this union succeed, right? The best story I know about Chicago and the women is that when Randolph Hearst came here from New York to try to organize the union, none of the black leaders in Chicago were in favor of unions at all. And it was the first group that really endorsed Randolph and the porters was the Ida B. Wells Club. And Ida B. Wells was militant, but she also knew all the pretty wealthy, important people in black Chicago at the time. So her endorsement and the Ida B. Wells Club endorsement was key to giving the union a foothold in the south side of Chicago as a respectable group and not opposed by all of the major black leaders and ministers.
CR: Well, that’s the way I see the importance of Milton Webster, a fellow who was streetwise and known to Chicagoans. Now I noticed the film told you that the organization started in what city?
EG: New York.
CR: New York. He wasn’t going to make it in New York. As many blacks as there were in New York, it was in Chicago where there was this well-organized black community, which had to be persuaded that it should support the porters. And this was moved along by people such as Webster. He had a lot of savvy and he was a tough guy. What the film didn’t show was the threat against Randolph and the porters—physical threats, rough stuff. That’s why you needed somebody like Webster, a soft—well, not soft-spoken—Randolph’s voice was very powerful—but he wasn’t a “tough guy”-type leader, like a Harold Washington, who was elegant as well as tough.
I would say this, though. I know there’s an author who was at the Bates Thompson talks about the role of black women like Ida B. Wells in the ‘20s, getting black Chicagoans to go along with the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. I have a feeling she overdoes that because she’s looking to find that, and I see the dynamic as—it’s a matter of time and the persistence of the people in the organization who, I guess, they do wear down—that’s the answer he gave—the company in Chicago. And as Erik Gellman just said, everybody was against the Pullman porters when they first came to Chicago to organize. The Defender, the Chicago [?] newspaper, the Urban League, the big churches—why? Because the Pullman Company had always been philanthropic. They were patrons of the arts, but more importantly, patrons of what? Philanthropic organizations such as the Provident Hospital, the church activities… Pullman was always there. So, a skeptic would say—
EG: That, on the one hand, is important. On the other hand, people in the black community in Chicago did not think highly of the AFL. Like, “Why would we want to join the AFL when this federation had done nothing for generations but to exclude black workers?” So, you know, it seemed like a crazy idea.
CR: To join the union, yeah. Now keep this in mind, in terms of organization. As the successive generations of these black men came into the work force as Pullman porters, they were much more aware; their consciousness was constantly being raised. So by the early 1900s in Chicago and elsewhere, there was an organization preceding the Brotherhood—never as well-organized as the Brotherhood, by the early 1900s. In addition to the company and its unions, there was a group called the United Brotherhood of Railroad Porters, but they were much milder in their approach to the company because they opposed strikes. And we saw from the film that the Brotherhood was going to use the key element of getting employers to move, and that’s the threat of a strike.
By the way, if the blacks had struck, who would have taken their places? Filipinos. There was a small number of Filipinos. The porters were never 100% black; there was a small number of Filipinos. And that threat was always over the head of black workers: If you strike, we’ll bring in Filipinos and maybe Chinese.
Audience Member #5: There was a shot of the parade, which appeared to have thousands of porters. And I was thinking, who was working that day? I mean, it thousands of them too.
CR: Oh yeah, a lot of them. And they looked great.
Audience Member #6: How much was $67 worth back then? Was it, like, $500 or $600?
CR: I don’t know. It wasn’t much.
Audience Member #6: Was it comfortable?
CR: No, it couldn’t have been. My grandfather, I mean—when you say comfortable…
Audience Member #6: I mean, if you live in Bronzeville, you had to be comfortable.
CR: You could make ends meet. It’s sort of like, today, if you have to struggle to get those kids to school—
Audience Member #6: They sent their kids to college, so that’s why I wanted to know…
Audience Member #7: I’ll give you an example. I used to take the rent check—I lived at 62nd and South Park, and we lived in a one-and-a-half room apartment. Mother, father, younger brother and myself; we slept in a Murphy bed.
I took the rent check, it was $80 in the ‘50s, and we couldn’t go any further than 67th Street. That was the furthest we could—and I would read the paper, and I would read the Sun-Times, and I would see that folks would get mortgages, and it pissed me off. My dad was paying $80 for us in a two-room—three-room: living room, bedroom, kitchen, bathroom, of course, and we were paying $80. That will give you an idea, this was back in the ‘50s and ‘60s.
CR: You know what our mortgage was in the ‘50s? Ninety-two dollars. And we got the money, by the way, from a black insurance company, Supreme Life at 35th Street. They were one of two organizations in the black community extending mortgages. Most folks had to buy on contracts. But I used to carry—I lived west, and I used to cary $92 hidden on my person all the way over, every month, to pay. That was in the early ‘50s. Nobody would have—You wouldn’t suspect it today, would you?
Audience Member #7: Was it red lined then?
CR: Oh yeah, plenty. And worse than that, the restrictive covenant had just been defeated in 1948. But blacks—if you look at that map I passed out—you really couldn’t contain the black community because, just like we say the porters wore the company down, as the people said in the film, because they were persistent, strong, had integrity, had a sense of mission, blacks, period, had shown ability to persevere through the years. When I teach—and I taught for over 40 years—the thing that always amazed was, how in the world did these people do it, especially with the low amount of money they were making?
Now, my grandfather would come home sometimes with items from the trains—you know, people would leave butter and steak… Crazy enough, they lived on the corner of 32nd and King Drive, and in the ‘30s, they had a part-time chauffeur. And then, of course, my grandmother was a domestic—black women were domestics then, that’s it. So it was rough going, but they did manage to buy homes—on contract or with mortgages—send kids to college, keep clothes on their kids, but it was not what I would think is comfortable. That is, you have money to get a kid what he wants when he wants that bike; you get it tomorrow—you know, without saving up for it. That’s when you’re comfortable; you don’t have to worry about buying that bike.
Audience Member #8: According to the film we’ve just seen, they had to rely on the tips in order to make the ends meet, and that was before the union.
CR: Right. And then, I think it was in ’37, only that the company recognized—Was it ’37 when the company said “We’ll raise wages”? “We’ll cut your hours down from 100 a week to maybe something like 60”? Only then were tips less important. But here’s the thing about tips. That really counts to people who were on the right lines—the fellow that was calling off the big lines—when the movie stars would be… What you wanted was a big tip to make yourself feel almost comfortable and living.
Audience Member #9: It was a blue-collar job, though, right?
CR: Yeah, it was strictly blue-collar. You can’t exaggerate how important it was. It wasn’t that important—it was hard work, and you were struggling to make ends meet. That lady back there…
Audience Member #10: I have several questions. I was just wondering, like, did the—I know the AFL was real anti-black and racist, but did the CIO have anything to do with organizing?
CR: There was no CIO until—he mentioned it. When the federal government came in with the Wagner Act in 1935, which is two years before the company recognized the union, the Wagner Act—Senator Robert Wagner of New York pushed legislation in the Senate to make sure organizations such as the Pullmans could engage in collective bargaining. With that success, you had the CIO emerging from the Committee on Industrial Organizations in the Congress, and they welcomed these mass-production workers—blacks and people from a variety of… But CIO was friendly to blacks. AF of L was not. Except—
EG: Can I add something? I don’t think that’s a coincidence that, in 1937, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters was finally recognized. What happened—and this is what I argue in some of my work—is that the push of the CIO was so militant and so strong that it really helped Randolph and his union finally break through.
CR: I would agree with that.
EG: Because in ’36 and ’37, in Chicago, African-Americans helped organize tens of thousands of steel workers and packing house workers.
Audience Member #10: My grandfather was a packing house worker. That was why I was asking…
EG: I think that was huge, because all of a sudden, the AFL was scared, thinking, What if the porters get organized by the CIO? We better cut a deal. And the Pullman Company thought the same thing. We’re better off having the porters recognized in the AFL than being out with these other, militant unions. Because at the same time, Randolph was the head of the National Negro Congress, and that was this organization that was really helping to organize steel and packing and automobile workers. And so, that threat, I think, was really important to pushing through the union for the Brotherhood.
Audience Member #10: I have another one. Like, I just wanted to understand the relationship with the Pullman porters and the regular factory workers that worked for Pullman. I don’t know; I just don’t understand.
CR: I’m still searching for those regular, black Pullman workers. I was mentioning it to Professor Gellman that I think I saw one reference to blacks working at Pullman. I have to go back and find that. But I haven’t seen anything that substantiates that there were any number of blacks working on making cars. I think they may have cleaned cars out at Pullman, but in terms of making cars, as industrial workers, I’ve never seen that. That’s a good project.
Michael Phillips: I think by the ‘60s and ‘70s, there were quite a few. We showed a movie—one of the first screenings we ever did was to show The Last Pullman Car, about the closing and the fight to keep the factory open. We showed it in the old Pullman factory.
CR: I’m talking, though, about the 1910s, 1920s, 1930s, 1940s. Remember, now, World War I brings in, for the first time in Chicago, the black industrial proletariat, when blacks in large numbers worked in the packing houses. And then they’re going into steel because of the war. There’s a shortage of workers. And then, of course, World War II increased the demand for workers, so, you know, you have more black workers in a lot of things. You have these women in this new movie coming out. Women can be mathematicians for the government because there was a shortage of people to do everything during the war.
Audience Member #11: What was the downfall of Pullman? What made them break up? Like, it said in 1969 they went out of business. What was the downfall? Were they still producing in 1969 over here?
EG: There were two different companies. There was a suit by the Justice Department when Pullman had a monopoly over things in the 1940s. And that suit went on for several years, and finally it was decided that they would divide the company. And the Pullman Company—that name—would be associated with the service on the trains and the cars that were leased, okay? Pullman, Incorporated, was the other half of the company, which manufactured cars, and they continued on and became a very diversified company. They purchased construction companies that made oil refineries and foundries…
Audience Member #11: So they’re still around, then?
EG: No, they ended in 1981, when there was a raid on the company, and Wheelabrator-Frye absorbed Pullman, Incorporated, and that’s when it ended. But they were here until ’81, when the last Pullman car was made.
Audience Member #11: You said there was a raid. What was the nature of the raid?
EG: Well, it was a stock raid, where they controlled the stock and… like… It was a corporate takeover… And what they did was, they would control the stock and then they would sort of raid the company in that they would take the best resources and sell them off, and that’s how you ended up with a lot of plants closing in other cities.
But basically, Pullman, Incorporated, ended in ’81, but the Pullman Company, which was the service end, ended, as they said in the film, in ’69. And it was the result of airlines and highways. The numbers are just very, very clear as to the decline in the use of the services.
Phillips: So we have about five minutes left, and one thing that I hope to maybe get some input from the audience—One of the goals of the series is to get us talking about what can we learn from these films about the past that might find parallels with what’s going on in labor and work today. Does anybody—It made me think of the Fight for $15, the push to get people in low-status, low-wage jobs a living wage. Does anybody see any parallels with anything like that?
CR: I do.
Audience Member #12: I was going to just say the same thing. Like, there’s one line in the movie where he’s, like—people were, like, thinking there’s no way we can get $150 an month; that’s, like, ridiculous. That’s sort of like the same way we view, like, Fight for $15 in the beginning. It was, like, all right guys; there’s no way you can get $15. Now, it’s, like, such a prominent discussion among, like, presidential candidates. It’s, like, well, what do we do about minimum-wage people who need to make money? And, like, largely, most of fast-food workers are, like, black and brown workers, so there’s the same thing here, like, a lot of parallels. You know, we just got to get people organized. I think that’s, like, what’s happening.
CR: You know, here’s a point that Avery brought up. The way this film is presented, the reporters look great. But this gentleman here and I were at Roosevelt together in the ‘60s. He can tell you—and I know you remember—there was disdain for the people who did the kind of work that porters did in the ‘50s—or who shined shoes, or did anything like this, when the civil rights movement first started, which evolved, partially, into the Black Power movement. You didn’t want to be associated with this type of work.
CR: Yeah, so you don’t want to get the impression that the porters were always extolled as the great models of whatever. The memories are great, but… And today, one of the problems with youth is youth doesn’t want to do this type of work.
Audience Member #13: You know they don’t.
EG: But I do think that there’s a parallel, right, that the porters were purposely hired to be in this servile position, right? There was a reason why Pullman only hired black men to be porters, right? It was the idea that white passengers thought this is an enactment of race relations, right? That black people are here to serve me. But the porters gave service, but they never—you know, they were never servile. And they organized this union, which then turned into a bigger union movement, which turned into the civil rights movement in many ways. And, similarly, Fight for $15, you know, it’s, like, not only is it about the $15, but it’s about if you organize, you get dignity and you get respect. Even if it is a job a McDonald’s or Burger King, which society still looks down upon, right, as… If you organize those jobs and make them living wage jobs, with it comes respect, right, and a change of attitude about it.
CR: Are they going to make the porters part of a historic district?
EG: It is.
CR: That’s official?
EG: Yeah. The President, when he came here on February 19th—
CR: I was there.
EG: Well, in the proclamation, he specifically stated three major things. And the porters were specifically called out. The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters was one of the things that was specifically called out in that proclamation that will be interpreted at the Pullman National Monument.