Biographies

Washington, D.C. Visitors Should Look Closely to See this Important Statue

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There was a time when A. Philip Randolph, founder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, was a household name.  To the generations that survived the Civil War and Reconstruction only to pass through the fires of two World Wars, the president of the nascent Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters was a strong and unwavering beacon for civil rights and economic justice for all Americans.  He fought for equal treatment and opportunity for all, regardless of their race or creed, and his signal success laid the foundation for the civil rights struggles to come. His contributions to this nation have been honored with a bronze statue in our nation’s capitol. However, changing patterns of transit and occupation have caused the statue to become isolated and forgotten. It now sits outside a Starbucks at an Amtrak Station in Washington, D.C.’s Union Station.  Thousands of people pass by this statue every day without the slightest awareness of who it represents or what he meant to this nation.  

The railroads were still the primary form of transportation a century ago, and traveling any distance meant spending a lot of time on a railway cars. Fortunately, the cars were well equipped with spaces for socialization, sanitation, and sleeping. The passenger quarters were overseen by a group of men known as porters. These men not only helped with luggage and directions, they were expected to assist the customers with anything they needed, from procuring something to eat to getting medical assistance.  The vast majority of these porters were black.  This was considered to be a glamorous job, especially within the black community of its day. Porters were educated men who had traveled far and seen much of the world. In 1925 Asa Randolph helped organize this national labor force into the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, one of the very first labor unions to have a predominantly African-American membership. This Brotherhood was a signal success, improving conditions for both the porters and their passengers. There was much work to be done, as the corporation that employed the vast majority of the porters, the Pullman Company, was noted for its unethical and aggressive ways. The battle took a dozen years, but in the end the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters was able to negotiate with the Pullman Company to increase their pay, put limits on the hours they would work, and even pay out overtime. This was an enormous victory for its time, and it represented the first occasion in American history that a predominantly black union was able to negotiate improved conditions with an employer.

Randolph did not stop there, and he continued to advocate for equality and economic self-sufficiency all the way up and down the scale. Perhaps his greatest victory was the pressure he put on Franklin Delano Roosevelt to sign Executive Order 8802, preventing all racial discrimination in industries working for the national defense. This would have great impact on America’s presence in World War 2. Finally, in 1960, towards the end of his long life, Randolph helped to found the Negro American Labor Council.

So that is why the statue of Asa Philip Randolph sits in the train station. Fewer people see it today, but it is still right and fitting that this man who did so much for our nation’s railways should find a place of honor where he can still watch over them. If you are traveling through Washington, D.C. by rail, or only stopping through and looking for a fascinating slice of history, stop over at Union Station and visit with Mr. Randolph.

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