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Webster, Milton P.(1887–1965) - Labor leader, Chronology, The Pullman Company Develops

porters bscp black service

Aconsummate union organizer, Milton P. Webster worked through the Chicago Division of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP) in the interest of its members and their right to fair treatment. He protested the Pullman Company’s long practice of low pay, long work hours, and harsh treatment of its porters, most of whom were African American. Later, he handled BSCP cases before the Railroad Adjustment Board and was chief negotiator of contracts with the railroad. His work with the BSCP leadership resulted in the American Federation of Labor’s acceptance of that group as its bargaining agency. This was the first African American union to win a national contract as well as the first bargaining agreement won against Pullman. The charter with AFL also led to Webster’s position as office holder on its international board.

Chronology

1887

Born (exact date unknown)

1924

Becomes assistant bailiff in Chicago’s municipal court

1925

Becomes ward leader for the Republican party in Chicago

1926

Begins relationship with A. Philip Randolph and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP)

1929

Elected first vice-president of the BSCP; announces forthcoming national labor conference in Chicago

1935

Pullman Company recognizes BSCP as bargaining unit for porters and maids

1941

President Franklin D. Roosevelt issues Executive Order No. 882, in the interest of jobs and for blacks; represents BSCP on the first Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC)

1965

Dies in Bal Harbor, Florida on February 24

Virtually nothing is known about the circumstances of Milton Webster’s birth or about his early life. It is known that he was the son of a Tennessee barber. While still a young man, Webster left Clarksville, Tennessee and moved to Chicago where for eighteen years he worked as a Pullman porter. Although the number of his siblings is unknown, he had an older brother, D. P. Webster, who may have founded the black postal workers’ protest group, the Phalanx Forum Club. With less than a ninth-grade education, Milton Webster had limited employment options. But Webster was determined to provide for his wife Elizabeth and their three children so that she could devote all of her energy to raising their son and daughters. In time he became frustrated with the Pullman Company and resigned from service. He also became interested in the work of political figures. At some point Webster’s political patron, Bernard Snow, who was chief bailiff of the municipal court, helped Webster to study law privately. In 1924 and in need of employment to support himself and his family, he became assistant bailiff under Snow. In this patronage position, he became a successful political operative in Republican politics. He held the position until 1930 and also managed at least two large apartment buildings in Chicago. Although this was during the Great Depression, Webster was still able to separate himself from the Pullman Company and to earn enough money and have sufficient time for union opportunities that came to him. He also gave the union financial support. Webster was influential in Republican politics as early as 1925, when he became a ward leader among the party’s black membership. In time, he was transformed from ward “heeler” to labor leader.

The Pullman Company Develops

Between 1868 and 1968, an African American attendant in service on the railroads was a common site. A peak decade for the American railroad system was the 1920s, when there were some 20,224 African Americans working as porters for the Pullman Company and as railroad personnel elsewhere. The history of the Pullman Company, however, provides fertile ground for the developments that would occur involving its black workers.

George Mortimer Pullman founded the Pullman Palace Car Company shortly after the Civil War. The manufacturing and operating firm built luxury railroad cars, equipped with service personnel for the affluent passengers traveling long distances. The company flourished, and by 1925 there were Pullman cars on practically all railroads in the country. Race conditions at the time dictated that blacks were placed in service jobs; for the most part, black men, who were right out of slavery or descendants of slaves, would be hired for the menial tasks, thus becoming the workers on these cars. Their role, however, became stereotypical, as they were often seen, and portrayed, as servants with a ready smile and open hand, and displaying a readiness for duty. They were treated as slaves who, according to A. Philip Randolph, gave long, devoted, patient and heroic service. They were the “fabric of the company.” The company was callous and heartless; in its view, black porters had no manhood. Even one young white man who Randolph referred to as “some sixteen-year-old whipper snapper messenger boy” insulted these men, some of whom had been with the company for thirty to forty years. He was simply a porter with a hapless lot. And all of the porters came to be known simply as “George,” in so-called “honor” of the company’s founder, George Mortimer Pullman.

By 1925, the company was in its heyday and was also the nation’s largest single employer of blacks. Several forward-thinking black men, however, took issue with the ill treatment of the race, particularly the Pullman porters.

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