What were the working conditions of the Black Railway Porters and how were they segregated from white train passengers and white union workers?
Serving light meals and refreshments on board a Canadian Pacific Ry buffet parlor car, 1924. CRHA/Exporail, Canadian Pacific Railway Company Fonds.
There were two transcontinental railways in Canada. Canadian National Railway (CNR) was owned by the federal government and Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) was privately owned. CPR offered a franchise of sleeping car services from the George Pullman Company, with the CNR providing similar services. Generally, both services were intended for white passengers who travelled in conditions consistent with an elite segregated status, where they were catered to by Black men of a lower status.
Railways offered a wide range of jobs beside those of porters. Porters were “housekeepers” or domestic servants. Some of the more prestigious jobs included firefighters, engineers, brakesmen, supervisors, conductors, track maintenance—all of which were classified as “operational” and not open to Black people.
Railway union membership was limited to white men, reinforcing segregation between railway workers. Constitution. Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen (1947). R12294, Vol. 20, File16. Library and Archives Canada.
Technically, porters were always on the job as long as the trains were rolling, responsible for the good service expected throughout the entire trip. A delayed train meant unexpectedly longer working hours. Porters received short breaks to sleep and for this reason were often called “sleepy car porters” instead of “sleeping car porters” because they were so deprived of sleep — often working more than 18 hours in a day. They had to be on the job and awake even if there were no passengers on a leg of the trip.
Porters could not eat in the presence of passengers. For a long time when porters took their meals in the dining car, they did so behind a black curtain that hid them from the eyes of the passengers. They could not initiate conversations with passengers and could not speak to or answer a female passenger while sitting. For any offence, porters would be penalized or given demerit points based on a system that allowed the railways to decide on the severity of the punishment for each offence. If porters received too many demerit points, they could be suspended from work and even fired. These difficult working conditions would inspire the porters to fight for better working conditions with the support of labour unions. This fight led to improved conditions including better wages as well as longer breaks for meals and sleep.
Image 1: Serving light meals and refreshments on board a Canadian Pacific Ry buffet parlor car, 1924. CRHA/Exporail, Canadian Pacific Railway Company Fonds.
Image 2: Postcard photo of a sleeping car of the Union Pacific Railroad’s Challenger. Union Pacific Railroad, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Canada’s two main railways had different work agreements for porters. CNR and its unions formally agreed to a segregated workplace where black and white workers were placed in different unions and with black men working exclusively as porters. CPR relentlessly crushed attempts by Black workers to organize themselves, while maintaining the same type of segregation as CNR. This called for separate but coordinated approaches by porters at CNR and CPR, as they all lived in the same communities. CNR porters fought their union and government for recognition; while CPR porters turned to the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP)..
Image 1: Railroad workers and equipment, [between 1895 and 1910], C 2-0-0-0-1791, I0002533, Archives of Ontario
Image 2: Railroad workers, [between 1895 and 1910], C 2-0-0-0-1793, I0002534, Archives of Ontario
Image 3: Railway workers in the St. Clair tunnel, , C 7-3, I0003390, Archives of Ontario