“Fight or be slaves!”

Ok, let’s see…. we left off talking about the Pullman Porters of West Oakland.  These men were part of the first wave of African Americans migrating to California in search of better opportunities.  C. L. Dellums was one of these men.

“C.L. Dellums’ father was born in slavery, just two and a half months before Juneteenth (June 19), 1865, the date emancipation belatedly came to Corsicana, Texas. C.L. left Texas for California determined to become a lawyer, declaring that ‘I don’t plan to wear these overalls for the rest of my life.’ But in the 1920s there were few decent jobs for African Americans, and Dellums went to work as a Pullman railroad porter as a last resort, reading constantly to learn about the world and ideas.” [‘Fight or be slaves!’ by Albert Lannon]

He was exemplary of the first generation of blacks in the Bay Area who found their options more limited than they had imagined. Though the porter jobs provided many with steady work and income, the conditions were not ideal…  wages were low and employees of the Pullman Company were dependent upon tips from white customers to supplement their income.  They were also required to pay for food, uniforms, and lodging out of their wages, and also were uncompensated for additional work time spent in preparatory and clean-up duties.

As a result of these conditions, the porters organized themselves into the first African American labor union in the United StatesThe Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.  First organized in 1925 by a group of 500 porters in Harlem, after years of having organizing efforts squelched by the company, they not only launched their campaign in secret, but also chose A. Philip Randolph, “an outsider beyond the reach of the Company, to lead it. The union chose a dramatic motto that summed up porters’ resentment over their working conditions and their sense of their place in history: ‘Fight or Be Slaves'”.

Randolph realized the need for a West Coast counterpart in organizing the Pullman Porters and chose C. L. Dellums, designating him Vice President of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in 1928, at which time he was promptly fired from the Pullman Company.  It took more than a decade for them to have any real negotiating success, but in 1937 the Brotherhood finally won a contract with the Pullman Company.  “It was the first economic agreement ever signed between African Americans and a white institution. It sent the message of unionism to the black community nationally.” [‘Fight or be slaves!’ by Albert Lannon]

Uncle of former congressman and current Oakland City Mayor Ron Dellums, C.L. became a major figure in Oakland’s African American Community, personally exemplifying the possibility of black empowerment.  He went on to serve as western regional director of the NAACP, and later was also instrumental in the organization of the 1941 March on Washington.  After his death, the new Amtrak station at Jack London Square was dedicated in his honor, a statue of Dellums adorning the entrance.

His nephew Ron Dellums is exemplary of the greater opportunities available to the second generation of African Americans in the Bay Area… thanks to the tireless efforts and sacrifices of those who came before them.  I’ll try to get more of this history up in the next few days, but again, I’ll just mention that most of this information was provided free of charge on Oakland’s city walking tour “New Era / New Politics” which will be offered one more time later this month… February 27th at 10am (meet on steps of AAMLO).

One thought on ““Fight or be slaves!”

  1. Pingback: Black History Month Wrap Up… « Oaktown Art

Comments are closed.