It may be an empty lot close beneath the BART running above, but this site was once the first West Coast location of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP). The BSCP is the first black labor union in the U.S., founded in 1925 by A. Phillip Randolph, with an American Federation of Labor Charter. The car porters of Oakland created their own community in Oakland and they organized with other car porters around the country to fight for their labor and civil rights. The car porters were responsible for tending to the passengers in the sleeping cars through the long trips across the country sometimes going all the way to Chicago. Some black workers moved their entire family to the West from other parts of the U.S. for employment with railroad companies. Many porters built their lives and settled their families in West Oakland, the terminus of the Central Pacific Line of the First Transcontinental Railroad.
Being a car porter was seen as an aspirational career as they could earn a higher income that allowed them to provide for their families and even send their children to college. To outsiders, the job was also seen as giving the opportunity to travel and sometimes to serve celebrities. For these reasons, the car porters were respected members of the black community in Oakland. In appearance, car porters wore crisp and formal uniforms and they were required to always be smiling while serving passengers. The Pullman car porters even had a slogan of ‘Miles of Smiles’. There was more to their work than on the surface. In fact, the porters worked incredibly hard in poor working conditions. Before 1937, the car porters were working up to 100 hours a week and were allowed less than three hours of sleep between their shifts. The porters were expected to answer the calls of the passengers at all hours of the night. Though it was a good wage compared to what other black men had during the time period, the well know Pullman Company began their sleeping car operations as early as 1860 with the strategic decision to hire black men in the passenger cars because they could be paid less than white workers. Those who were served by the porters often were not aware of the conditions or rather they were willingly ignorant of the conditions only seeing the characterization of blacks in the advertisement of the sleeping cars, depicting the car porters strictly as the servant class.
The BSCP, with leadership by CL Dellums and A. Phillip Randolph organized to change the poor working conditions and the ongoing racism faced in their occupation. Some hesitant porters needed to be assured that their efforts would yield successes and not put them at risk of losing their jobs. Union activity was strongly discouraged by some of the largest railroad companies. In 1937, the BSCP were granted better working conditions and higher wages, though their unionization efforts would continue up until the 1960s when the sleeping car industry has been mostly discontinued. By the 1970s most of the rail-cars were retired or bought by Amtrak.
With their union efforts and contributions to community,
the West Oakland Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters is remembered as the organization that united black car porters in the fight for the civil and labor rights on the road.