A century ago, Winnipeg railways became 'birthplace' of fight for black Canadian workers' rights

At the turn of the 20th century, Winnipeg-based railway sleeping car porters, almost all of whom were black, formed the first black union in North America, as they fought against racist policies in the workplace.

Revisiting the struggles, victories of Winnipeg's sleeping car porters during Black History Month

A sleeping car porter helps two kids and their parents board a train in 1931. (Supplied by Canada Science and Technology Museum/CN005805)

A train picks up steam as it chugs away from Canadian Pacific Railway Station in Winnipeg on a winter day in the early 1900s.

As the train rumbles down the tracks, a black man working as a sleeping car porter escorts a white couple and their two kids to the luxury train car they've booked for the trip.

The porter stows their coats and baggage before the couple head off to the dining car for a nightcap, leaving him to babysit the kids.

Sleeping car porters took pride in their work, but they were also expected to tend to the every need of passengers, experts say. The almost exclusively black workforce received lower wages, and experienced poorer working conditions and greater job insecurity, than white railway workers at the time.

A CN porter checks on a child in a sleeping car in 1947. (Canadian Science and Technology Museum/CN005491)

Prior to the 1940s, they weren't even provided with a berth to sleep in during the work trips that typically lasted more than three days.

"Not only were we treated as third-class citizens by management, we got the same treatment from white workers," former porter Lee Williams told the Winnipeg Free Press in 1992.

"The whites worked in dining cars and we worked in the sleeping cars. They gave us food that should have been thrown away."

Lee Williams, seen in this 2000 file photo, fought for equal employment rights for sleeping car porters. (CBC)

Saje Mathieu, a history professor at the University of Minnesota, said black workers had few other options but to serve as porters.

"You have a person 24-hours a day at your beck and call who is shining your shoes, who is — as a requirement of their employment and holding onto that employment — being subservient.

"People wanted that in the sleeping car — they could do without it in the dining car," said Mathieu, author of North of the Color Line, a book that delves into the history of sleeping car porters in Canada. 

1st black railway union

Work conditions, paired with the racist policies that made it impossible for black employees to access other jobs in the railway, sparked change in 1917. 

John A. Robinson helped form the first black union in North America in 1917, the Order of the Sleeping Car Porters. (Archives of Manitoba)

That year, John A. Robinson, along with three fellow CN workers — listed in historical documents as P. White., J.W. Barber and B.F. Jones — asked to join the Canadian Brotherhood of Railway Employees union.

The Brotherhood was only for white workers, they were told, so in April of that year they formed the Order of the Sleeping Car Porters.

It was the first black railway union in North America.

"Winnipeg was … the birthplace of this movement," Mathieu said.

The OSCP later voted to support white workers in the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919. Ninety-nine porters joined the 30,000 workers who walked off the job on May 12. The majority of those men weren't hired back after the dust settled.

Sleeping car porters only made about $100 a month at the time, Mathieu said, but the OSCP also contributed $50 to the strike movement, which translates to over $700 in 2020 terms.

"It was huge," said Mathieu. 

"They were in there — they were getting bottles broken over their heads too. Despite having been rejected by the union, they turned up and turned out for the union."

The vote of support led the Western Labor News to defend black workers when replacement workers from the U.S. arrived to take their jobs. (University of Manitoba Libraries)

Often overlooked history

Over 100 years on, Robinson's efforts and leadership as a pastor in the community still resonate with Naomi Dennie.

"He just fought back," said Dennie, a student at the University of Manitoba's faculty of education.

Naomie Dennie presented about the sleeping car porters last summer during a Winnipeg General Strike centenary conference. (Submitted by Naomi Dennie)

"He called out the injustice, racism and unfair working conditions that were imposed on them, and that really just helps to advance this cause."

Inspired by Mathieu's work on the sleeping car porters, she began research of her own. Last summer, she presented on the porters' anti-racism and labour rights victories at an academic conference marking the centenary of the 1919 strike.

It's a chapter of local labour history that often goes unnoticed by the greater Winnipeg community, said Dennie.

"These narratives need to be told and shared and brought out from the dust," she said.

"Black history is Canadian history."

'Felt a level of vulnerability'

That early history was comprised of three strands of black populations that made their way to Winnipeg.

Many came from states in the U.S. Midwest, hoping to escape the Jim Crow laws that perpetuated racial discrimination south of the border, while a wave of West Indians also arrived via Toronto, and later from the Maritimes.

The discrimination many sought to escape inevitably followed, yet unlike other parts of the country, the black community set deep roots early on in Winnipeg, said Mathieu.

Beginning in the late 1800s, the community was mainly concentrated a stone's throw from the railway station in what's now considered the North End and Point Douglas areas.

Circa 1875: A Pullman Pioneer sleeping car, the first sleeper made by the firm. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

"There's a reason they're all living by the train station, and it's because no one will rent to them beyond the train station," said Mathieu. "They too felt a level of vulnerability with the ways that Canadians could be xenophobic."

For a time before the turn of the 20th century, some worked in dining cars or elsewhere, but by the end of the First World War nearly all black rail workers were limited to working as porters.

Mathieu said in spite of the unfair treatment the porters received, there was also a lot of pride in the work.

"The white gaze isn't the only gaze.… In a black community, a sleeping car porter wasn't a 'bottom rung' — it was a person who went to work in a clean uniform, a person who was paid in cash, a person who could take care of their family."

Williams wins big

Still, being kept from advancing or moving positions in the railway was a barrier white workers didn't have to face, and it was a fight that carried on well after Robinson's initial efforts.

One of several displays celebrating black history in Winnipeg in the basement of the Pilgrim Baptist Church in Point Douglas discusses black immigration to the city in the early 1900s, and how many people ended up working as sleeping car porters. The church has been around for about a century and continues to serve as an important religious and cultural hub for members of the black community. (Supplied by Evan Tynes)

Lee Williams picked up his torch. He worked as a porter in the 1930s and 1940s, and pushed CN Rail for better wages and fair access to other opportunities with the railway.

By 1964, his efforts led to the end of discriminatory practices that barred black employees from getting other jobs with the railway.

"Woke up a lot of peoples' ideas and they look at blacks different now. The discrimination is still there, but it's not quite the same," Williams told CBC News in 2000.

"I always did feel like I was, black or not, I was just as good as anybody else, and I didn't want to be treated any different," he said.

"Canadian. That's how I feel."

Watch Lee Williams in this CBC documentary from 2000 about local black history:

CBC Archives (2000): Sleeping car porters and black immigration to Manitoba

3 years ago
Duration 9:29
In this piece from 2000, CBC reporter Sandra Batson covers immigration of black communities to the Prairies and the struggles they encountered in Canada.