Tag Archives: pullman company

“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).

The rise of a black middle class…

I took a city walking tour about a week ago in honor of Black History Month… titled “New Era / New Politics” and offered by the city of Oakland free of charge, it’s one of eight walking tours covering different topics in Oakland’s history.  The tours typically only run during summer months from May through October, but this one exclusively is offered three times during February to celebrate the contributions of influential African American leaders to Oakland’s development.  In fact, this tour was developed and first offered in conjunction with the opening of the African American Museum and Library at Oakland (AAMLO) in 2002.  We met on the steps of the AAMLO to begin our tour…

Our guide, Renate, began with a broad statement…  that Oakland, as a medium-sized American city, is unique in its diversity, and specifically its history of diversity. And she attributed this difference primarily to the success of the Pullman Porters.

For those not familiar with the Pullman Porters, a bit of history… In the late 1800’s, Oakland was designated as the western terminus of the Transcontinental Railway.  This railway system connected the eastern portion of the United States with the new western states, and more specifically the burgeoning city of Oakland directly with the more established metropolis of Chicago.  Around this same time, George Pullman, an inventor and entrepeneur based in Chicago, developed railway sleeping cars, designed to offer trans-continental transport in a manner of luxury previously unavailable.  His first cars – containing sleeping berths, curtains, carpeting, upholstered chairs, and washrooms at each end – were called Palace Cars, and were marketed with the motto “luxury for the middle classes.”

To complement this experience of luxury, Pullman exclusively hired African American men to staff his cars as porters and wait-staff, believing that they were well-suited for these positions as “people who had been trained to be the perfect servant[s].” Though the jobs were not particularly well-paying and advancement was limited, they afforded many steady employment and income, as well as the ability to travel… novel concepts for blacks in that day and age in America.  By the 1920’s and 30’s the Pullman Company was one of the largest employers of blacks in America, many of whom lived and worked in West Oakland around the now defunct 16th Street Central Station.

When California joined the ranks of the “united” states in 1850, it did so as a free state with a constitution that abolished slavery.  But despite this, our tour guide Renate informed us that prior to the 1920’s, there were very few blacks in California.  It wasn’t until the railway system was completed and the relative prosperity of the early 20th century offered greater mobility that the first migratory wave of African Americans settled in California, many coming to Oakland in search of greater opportunities.  Throughout our tour, Renate emphasized the differences between this first generation of blacks in the Bay Area, those who had roots in the east and south, and the second generation, their offspring born and raised in California.  The opportunities available to the first generation would be fewer than expected… those coming with hopes of obtaining university educations to establish careers as doctors and lawyers were frustrated to find themselves excluded in ways that had not been expected in the reputedly liberal state of California.

But the Pullman Porters jobs allowed many families to settle in West Oakland… employees were actually required to establish residency within running distance of the train station. These early entrants into the formal blue collar workforce of America took hold of a rung from which they propelled themselves into the mainstream middle class of American Society (Rising From The Rails by Larry Tye).  One of my favorite quotes from the tour was something along the lines of the following:

Once you have an educated middle class,”historical consciousness” comes into being.

With that consciousness, a slew of early black leaders were able to assess the quality and context of their current station in life, and envision a different future possible.  A handful of these visionaries formed the East Bay Negro Historical Society, the remnants of whose archives now form the foundation of AAMLO’s archives.

There is much more to tell, but I am finding it exceedingly difficult to write this from Mexico.  Lo siento.  You can imagine how the gently swaying palms and lapping turquoise waters do distract… Forgive me.

For those interested in delving into this on their own (or too impatient to wait for my vacation-scheduled recap – can you say mañana?), the New Era / New Politics tour will be offered one more time this month… on Saturday the 27th, meets at AAMLO, starts at 10 am.