StoryCorps is an American non-profit organization whose mission is to record, preserve, and share the stories of Americans from all backgrounds and beliefs. In 2007-08, StoryCorps operated a recording booth inside NPL’s Main Library. I had the honor of serving as an interview facilitator at the Nashville booth, and I’m writing this blog series to highlight some of our community members’ interviews.
"Mrs. Tucker has her own mind."
For the success of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, we owe a debt of gratitude to an extraordinary woman many of us have never heard of: trailblazing labor and civil rights activist Rosina Corrothers Tucker. The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters was the first Black-led union, and Tucker was a leader of the Brotherhood's Ladies’ Auxiliary, also known as the Women’s Economic Councils. Back in September 2007, Jane Marshall came to the Nashville StoryBooth to remember and celebrate the long and storied life of Mrs. Tucker. Have a listen:
Jane Marshall StoryCorps Interview
The Beginning of a Movement
In the 1920s, the Pullman Palace Car Company was the nation's largest single employer of Black men. This is because the white Pullman workers had unionized in the late 1890s in response to the company's cutting of labor costs such that the workers couldn't even afford to live in the company properties built to house them. After that, Pullman came to favor Black porters because there were no Black unions at that point. A. Philip Randolph was determined to change that.
In the summer of 1925, Randolph agreed to help organize the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP), the nation’s first predominantly Black labor union. Black porters interested in unionizing were under constant fear of retaliation from the company bosses. They needed a way to communicate and recruit that wouldn't put them in danger of losing their jobs. That's where the porters' wives came in; they were able to do all of the behind the scenes organizing, flying under the radar of the watchful company and swelling the fledgling union's numbers.
Under Randolph’s leadership, the BSCP became the first Black union to be granted a charter by the American Federation of Labor (AFL). In 1934, Congress amended the earlier Railway Labor Act to specifically cover workers in sleeping cars, making it illegal for Pullman to fire members of the BSCP. The new legislation paved the way for Randolph and the BSCP to win a collective bargaining agreement and sign a contract with Pullman that recognized the union, reduced porters’ monthly work hours and raised wages. (source)
Without the work of women like Mrs. Tucker, the porters wouldn't have been able to amass the numbers and power they needed to successfully organize and build the momentum that fueled the Civil Rights movement.
"I keep my commitments."
Under Mrs. Tucker's leadership, the Women's Economic Councils went on to form alliances with other labor unions, including the Washington Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL) and the National Negro Alliance. Mrs. Tucker and A. Philip Randolph remained close for the rest of their lives. When he was working to organize the first March on Washington in 1941 (which was eventually called off, only to come to fruition in 1963), Randolph appointed Mrs. Tucker as a key organizer. As Jane Marshall remembers Mrs. Tucker saying, "It was A. Philip Randolph and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and not Martin Luther King - fine man that he was - it was the Brotherhood that organized the 1963 Civil Rights March. Dr. Martin Luther King was an invited guest."
Rosina Corrothers Tucker died at age 105, in 1987. Her life spanned a century in which she both mourned at the funeral of Frederick Douglass and witnessed Martin Luther King Jr. deliver his "I Have a Dream" speech. In her unfinished autobiography found after her death, she wrote:
“Today is my day, as it is your day. Although I live far removed from the time when I was born, I do not feel that my heart should dwell in the past. It is in the future. While I live, let not my life be in vain. And when I depart, may there be remembrance of me and my life as I have lived it.”
To learn more about Mrs. Tucker's life and the history of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, check out some of these NPL materials, including the 1989 documentary Miles of Smiles, Years of Struggle: The First African American Trade Union, narrated by Mrs. Tucker and available at NPL through Kanopy: