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St. Paul’s Boyd Park commemorates a Black labor leader

Frank Boyd was a celebrated organizer in Minnesota for the country’s most influential African American labor union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, from 1926 to 1951.

photo of frank boyd
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Frank Boyd, c.1951.
Frank Boyd was a celebrated organizer in Minnesota for the country’s most influential African American labor union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, from 1926 to 1951.

Boyd was born on November 17, 1881, the oldest of four children. He grew up in Atchison, Kansas, a railroad town where he received seven years of schooling. Boyd and his wife, Hattie, came to St. Paul in 1904. In 1907, he got work as a Pullman porter, tending passengers on the Pullman Company’s sleeper cars. For an extra charge, porters provided travelers with beds and other comforts. It was a desirable job given the poor choices then available to black men.

Pullman porters (all of them African American) had steady work, camaraderie, an identity, and community esteem—but these came at a price. Their wages were low, so they depended on tips, which, in turn—and by company design—demanded servility. They were required to seem grateful. All had to answer to the name George (for George Pullman).

On the road, porters were on duty almost twenty-four hours a day, always on call; no overtime pay until they had worked four hundred hours in a month. The company charged them for their food, uniforms, and even the polish they used on passengers’ shoes. Still, by the early 1920s, the Pullman Company employed more African Americans than any other company in the country.

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Boyd took part in organizing attempts in 1909 and 1910 and a wage-increase petition in 1912. In 1918, he joined porters from the Milwaukee Road in the Railway Men’s International Benevolent Industrial Association. The early unions all failed. Another group formed the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters Protective Association in New York in 1919. Boyd attended its 1920 convention in Chicago; this union failed, too. The Pullman Company responded by forming a company union, the Pullman Porters Benefit Association. Seeing no alternative, Boyd joined the Benefit Association in 1921 and served for three years as a local officer.

In the summer of 1925, a small group of Pullman porters persuaded the Harlem socialist A. Philip Randolph to lead the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP), another attempt to organize porters nationwide. Boyd quit the company union in September. In January 1926, despite warnings from his boss, Boyd held open BSCP organizing meetings in St. Paul.

Boyd most likely knew he would be fired; this is what usually happened to Pullman porters who advocated for unions. No longer working for Pullman had one advantage: distance from the company’s many spies. But the cost was high; Frank Boyd never worked a steady job again. For decades he served as an unpaid organizer for the BSCP.

Union achievements came slowly. The BSCP battled Pullman and lobbied Congress for a decade before gaining recognition in 1935. In 1937, it negotiated a contract with Pullman that cut monthly hours from four hundred to 240 and raised pay by twelve dollars a month to $100. From that point forward, the Brotherhood became the black workers’ premier union and A. Philip Randolph their most outstanding labor leader. By July 1948, base pay had risen to $230.50.

If there are any surviving records of Boyd’s day-to-day work as a labor organizer, they have not been found. His devotion to his comrades in the struggle and the strength of his legacy, however, remain evident. In 1951, the BSCP’s leaders came to St. Paul to honor Boyd upon his retirement at age seventy. The St. Paul Recorder called him “almost a legend in the life of this state.” The BCSP’s newspaper, the Black Worker, devoted its January 1952 issue to Boyd, the “Black Labor Prophet.” Its four-page editorial called him fearless, aggressive, a scourge to the timid, and a terror to the stool pigeons. A. Philip Randolph went further; in a speech, he called Boyd a black revolutionist who would be remembered with Nat Turner and Frederick Douglass.

Boyd moved to Los Angeles in 1959 and died there in 1962. Fourteen years later, the City of St. Paul named a new park for him, dedicated in May 1976. There is a bust of him there and beneath it a plaque that reads, “A fighter for / His union / His people / His class.”

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.