Labor Day’s Meaning to the Descendants of Stolen Labor

Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Source: Virginia Commonwealth University Social Welfare History Project

In 1619, approximately 400 years ago, slavery in America began. In 1865, just 153 years ago, slavery ended under the 13th Amendment. The end marked a challenging time for a freed person who although having citizenship rights and equal protection under the 14th Amendment and the right to vote by the 15th Amendment, these laws were ignored. Black Codes, the laws restricting Black people and ensuring they remained part of the cheap labor force, were at an all time high.

This brings us to the Pullman neighborhood on the Southside of Chicago. Just seven years ago I worked at an afterschool program at Pullman Elementary School. Whenever I drove to the school I had an eerie feeling. The Victorian-styled houses looked the same and the neighborhood felt cold and dark.

On my tour of the school, the staff explained that the neighborhood was previously a railroad town built by the Pullman Company in the 1880’s. Employees of the railroad were given access to housing with above standard amenities for the times, such as indoor plumbing and gas. In addition, they had to abide by rules set by the Pullman Company. In 1893, there was a depression and the Company laid off hundreds of workers. Those employees who were laid off or endured a decreased income, were obligated to pay rent at normal rates. Mr. Pullman refused to lower rental rates or cut costs of items available within the town. Infuriated and barely able to make a living, the workers engaged in the Pullman Strike in 1894. The strike affected so many people, cities, and businesses and even became violent. The government intervened and to help organize labor after the strike, labor day was created and promoted by President Cleveland in 1894.

During this time, Black people were porters in the railroad cars. They shined shoes, carried bags, and facilitated janitorial services. During this time, this industry was the largest employer of Black people in the nation. A major portion of the Pullman Company was made up of Porters. During the depression, Black Porters were not allowed to strike or join the union. As a result, they formed the Brotherhood of the Sleeping Car Porters, the first Black union in America (Push Black, 2016).

President Cleveland marked Labor Day to assist after strike sentiment and promote organized labor. While Black Codes often helped companies ignore the rights of Black people, the Porters, descendants of slaves, persisted. They organized amongst themselves fighting for their place in society even amongst a depression. They fought for equal rights because just decades earlier they were lawfully property. They organized so that Black people now could enjoy fair employment practices.

We have come a long way. We still have a way to go however, as I engage in some rejuvenation this holiday season, I will send a thank you to the Black Porters of the Pullman Company.