Thursday, October 24, 2013


As founder and secretary-treasurer of the International Ladies' Auxiliary and a force in the establishment of its parent organization, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, Rosina Tucker helped to raise the economic level of large numbers of black people in the United States and Canada. She organized porters' wives in activities to support the auxiliary and the union, and their efforts helped to ensure the men of adequate pay, decent working conditions, and new benefits. The brotherhood focused on battling racism and, with Tucker's assistance, organized civil rights marches in 1941 and 1963.
"Once a young man asked me, 'What was it like in your day?' 'My day?' I said, 'This is my day!'" - Rosina Tucker, Washington DC
Rosina Budd Harvey Corrothers Tucker, one of nine children, was born on November 4, 1881, on Fourth Street in northwest Washington, D.C. Her parents, Lee Roy and Henrietta Harvey, had been slaves in Virginia before they relocated to Washington after their emancipation. As was the case with many former slaves, they found the brutal memories of bondage painful to recount. Although the Harveys never told their story to their children, Rosina Tucker overheard them discussing their experiences with each other. Tucker remembered her father talking about the meager amounts of food he received as a slave.
Rosina Tucker had pleasant memories of her early childhood and fondly reminisced about her musical training and her father's teachings.  By the time the children entered school, they already had a more than rudimentary musical education and were able to read and write. When she was twelve years old Rosina Tucker played piano for her Sunday school and also taught in the infant department.

After her first husband James Corrothers died in 1917, Rosina returned to Washington, D.C., where she worked as a file clerk with the federal government and became involved in civic activities. Through friends she met Berthea J. Tucker, known as B. J., who had worked as a carpenter's helper before becoming a Pullman car porter. They married on Thanksgiving eve in 1918, when she was thirty-six years old, and moved into a two-story brick house on Seventh Street northeast near Gallaudet College, where she remained the rest of her life.

Although the black porters were
restless at the beginning of the twentieth century, it was not until some years later, in 1909, that the porters formulated their grievances and made efforts to organize.
On August 25, 1925, in the Imperial Lodge of Elks, 160 West 129th Street, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters was launched and Randolph began what was to be a long tenure as president. The union also established the Women's Economic Councils, an organization through which women could work for the rights of the brotherhood.

Randolph and Totten tried to bring the union to Washington, D.C., where they had a big meeting at John Wesley Church for the porters as well as their wives. But the porters were reluctant to join for fear of losing their jobs. B. J. Tucker joined the union immediately--in time he became a member of the executive board--and then he and Rosina took up the cause in the District. At first the men's work was so demanding that they had little time for union activities; therefore, their wives did much of the work for them and held secret meetings so that the men's positions would not be threatened. When Rosina Tucker met with Randolph and Totten, they did so in private and secret places, including Tucker's home, so that informers would be unable to report on the sessions to the company. To organize unions in the South, Tucker visited the homes of some three hundred porters who lived in the Washington area, distributed literature, discussed the organization with prospective members and their wives, and collected dues from the women as well as the men.

The next step for Tucker was to organize the local Ladies' Auxiliary, which, over the years, provided financial and emotional backing for the brotherhood. From the start, the women raised a great deal of money by hosting parties, dances, dinners, and other activities. Tucker called upon her church and social service background to help families experiencing illnesses and other difficulties, including loss of employment.
"We would have to act in secret because if the management found out, they would fire people. That's why, in one sense, it was easier for the wives to do the work. That's how I got involved."
In time the Pullman Company learned about her work and reacted by firing her husband. When she heard about the company's punitive action, she declared, "I'm not going to take that." She told Susan Ellen Holleran for about...time, that she tried to contact the company superintendent, who was always "in conference." Then she went to his supervisor and said, "I'm Mrs. B. J. Tucker and I came over to see you about why my husband lost his job." When the man asked why B. J. Tucker was not there to see about it himself, Rosina reacted by banging on his table and saying, "You brought me into this thing, and you have nothing to do with what I do." B. J. Tucker was rehired.

In 1937, when the porters and the Pullman Company signed a contract, for the first time there was a formal agreement between a union of black workers and a major American corporation. The next year Rosina Tucker attended the union's national convention in Chicago and chaired the Constitution and Rules Committee. Immediately after the brotherhood's convention, the International Ladies' Auxiliary was established and held its first meetings on September 24-27.

Read more:

From: Black Women in America: Social Activism, Encyclopedia of Black Women in America.
These black women trade unionists believed the American labor movement was not only for men but also for their wives and families. "Marching Together" (the title of the auxiliary's official anthem), the wives and female relatives of sleeping car porters, attendants, and maids helped the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP) American Federation of Labor become the first successful national black trade union. Membership figures varied, but in 1945, the auxiliary had more than 1,500 dues-paying members in the United States and Canada. Chicago, the largest local, claimed nearly 175 members, while smaller districts such as Portland, Norfolk, and St. Paul had core memberships of more than forty. Active between 1925 and 1957, the auxiliary also affiliated with the National Women's Trade Union League and American Federation of Women's Auxiliaries to Labor.

The Hesperus Club of Harlem became the first auxiliary in October 1925, with the encouragement of A. Philip Randolph, publisher of the Messenger and general organizer of the six-week-old BSCP. Other women's groups soon followed, along with Brotherhood locals in Philadelphia; Washington, D.C.; Chicago; St. Louis; Omaha; Kansas City; Los Angeles; and elsewhere. For twelve years these auxiliaries, known formally as the Colored Women's Economic Councils, kept the faith during the "dark days" of the union's struggle for recognition.

Council activities varied with the Brotherhood's needs and differing locales. The new union always needed money. Often evicted, frequently without funds for heat and light, the struggle to keep the union going often fell to the councils. Using fund-raising methods learned in church and other women's groups, they sponsored dances, bazaars, silver teas, chitterlings and chicken dinners, and apron and pajama sales to send Brotherhood officials on cross-country organizing tours. When Randolph and other organizers arrived in Washington, D.C., for example, Brotherhood women such as Rosina Corrothers-Tucker (1881–1987) housed and fed them.

The Women's Economic Councils operated as local units until 1938, when President Randolph called women together in Chicago to found the International Ladies' Auxiliary Order to the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, "the first international labor organization of black women in the world" as Tucker wrote in her unpublished autobiography. Delegates from twenty-seven cities elected Halena Wilson as president, Rosina Corrothers-Tucker as secretary-treasurer, and recognized twelve other faithful wives with international offices. Brotherhood president Randolph became the international counselor to the auxiliary, maintaining his central advisory role in the women's organization.
Under the international structure, President Wilson, with Counselor Randolph's approval, developed a three-part program of organization, legislation, and cooperation designed to educate black women about the labor movement. The Ladies' Auxiliary believed labor solidarity meant family unity. The Brotherhood brought domestic security to porters' families through increased wages and better working conditions for husbands. The assumption was that women should take responsibility for the labor movement because women spent 85 percent of the family income; wives should spend their husbands' wages on union-label goods and services to guarantee organized labor's success. Members studied the consumers' cooperative movement; the Chicago and Denver auxiliaries founded cooperative buying clubs. One meeting each month focused on workers' education; each summer as many as a dozen members or their daughters received labor school scholarships to learn labor history, economics, union leadership, public speaking, and union homemaking.

The Ladies' Auxiliary Constitution declared subordination to the Brotherhood, but men and women contested women's proper role in the union. Many men objected when Randolph announced he would encourage women to join the union's fight, believing that women's participation would complicate matters. In some locals, Brotherhood men appear to have deliberately sabotaged the women's efforts; in other locals, a few in the Ladies' Auxiliary insisted they had a right to attend the men's union meetings and to vote. Yet when the Chicago auxiliary debated the Brotherhood in 1951 on "Who Makes a Better Union Member, Man or Woman?" the women won by a majority vote.
It has taken many years, but at the end of her long life, Tucker's view was that "blacks have made substantial progress. But we have a long way to go." She often talked -- proudly -- of her long years of activism, which stretched to almost half the life of this Republic. But she would always stress as well that she lived in the present, not the past.
In the closing years of her life, she gave lectures across the country, and appeared before congressional committees, in particular to lobby for greater protection for senior citizens. The once elegant neighborhood in which she lived had long since fallen into decline. But she refused to leave the house she had lived in since 1918, even though she lived there alone. Her husband and relatives were long gone. Her only son died young -- in 1945.

Losing loved ones and friends is an inevitable consequence of living long enough. But Rosina Tucker was never lonely in her last years. She received numerous awards from organizations such as the NAACP, the nation's oldest civil rights organization, and the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. She seemed most content in her work for the Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church. She was a member of the congregation for 65 years. Everyone there knew her as "Mother Tucker" and children would often surround her, demanding to hear stories of her life long ago.
In 1987 -- on a beautiful spring day -- Rosina Tucker died, 105 years after her birth during the presidency of Chester A. Arthur. At her funeral, one speaker remarked on the landmark events in American history through which she had lived, recalling that she had been a mourner at the funeral of Frederick Douglass (the noted abolitionist) in 1895, and an organizer at the 1963 March on Washington, at which Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his unforgettable, "I have a dream," speech. She was here so long, remembered another speaker, that she "experienced life before segregation, during segregation and after segregation."
Following her death, an unpublished autobiography was discovered that she authored in her nineties. In it, 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."
What will you do with your day?
What does the future look like to you?
Whose life will you make a difference in?

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