Location: The A. Philip Randolph monument in Washington, D.C.’s Union Station
Expert: Touré Reed, Professor of History at Illinois State University
Why it’s worth a visit:
Thousands of people pass by a significant historic monument every day at Washington D.C.’s Union Station without ever knowing it. At the closest Starbucks to the Amtrak boarding gates is a striking statue honoring A. Philip Randolph, a key leader in the Civil Rights movement. This obscure placement may seem surprising, but according to Touré Reed, Professor of History at Illinois State University, there’s a logic to the location in the main train concourse. “[Randolph’s] career as a successful civil rights organizer began in 1925, when he was elected president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters,” one of the first labor unions led by black Americans, says Reed.
Porters were railway employees who were not only required to load and unload baggage, but were expected to tend to passengers’ various needs. It was a grueling 24-hour-a-day job, but compared to many other economic avenues for African Americans leading up to World War II, it had prospects. “The porters of that era were often very well educated, and the job entailed travel, so there was a glamor associated with the job that really belied the actual work,” explains Reed.
At the time, the Pullman Company, which manufactured and operated railroad cars, expected its poorly paid black porters to spend lots of unpaid time waiting around and cleaning, and required these on-call workers to pay for their own food and lodging. In 1937, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters became the first black union to successfully negotiate a contract with a major employer, when the Pullman Company (which held a monopoly on overnight sleeping cars) agreed to increase wages, shorten hours, and pay overtime to its black workforce.
In the lead-up to America’s entry into World War II, Randolph and other black activists lobbied President Franklin Roosevelt for fair employment practices, going so far as to threaten a march on Washington in early 1941. Their efforts led to the signing of Executive Order 8802, which prohibited racial discrimination in defense industries. In 1960, disappointed with the failure of some of America’s largest unions to prevent discrimination in its ranks, Randolph helped found the Negro American Labor Council.
Another Randolph organization, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, became one of the country’s most prominent activist groups. Randolph formed a strong partnership with Martin Luther King Jr., and served as a principal organizer for the legendary 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which demanded full access to employment for minority groups and federally funded jobs programs. Within two year’s Congress had passed both the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act.
“People like Randolph encourage our compatriots to think about things that they had in common with people who didn’t look like them, rather than focusing on the things they imagined to be unbridgeable divides,” says Reed.
How to find the A. Philip Randolph monument
The monument is accessible by foot at D.C.’s Union Station, outside of the Starbucks on the Claytor Concourse.
This story is the eighth in a series about amazing historical travel destinations in America. Read expert recommendations on where to go in Ohio, Florida, Idaho, Massachusetts, Kansas, Kentucky and Illinois.