Willard S. Townsend was born 126 years ago tomorrow (December 4, 1895), in Cincinnati, Ohio. During and after high school, Townsend worked in the Cincinnati Union Terminal as a “red cap.” A red cap is a baggage porter at railway stations. Red cap positions were predominantly held by Blacks well into the 1950s.
World War I began in Europe in August 1914; Townsend joined the U.S. Army in 1916. He served as a lieutenant in France in the 372nd Infantry Regiment. After returning from the war, Townsend helped form an entirely Black company of the Ohio National Guard.
Townsend then attended the Illinois School of Chiropody, and practiced briefly as a chiropodist. At one of her Cincinnati performances, Townsend met jazz/blues singer Alberta Hunter and they married in January 1919. However, they separated within months and divorced in 1923. Townsend moved to Toronto, Canada; he worked as a railroad dining car waiter to finance his university studies. He became secretary of the Canadian Brotherhood of Railway Employees, and soon realized the “divisive power of race to stop union organizing.”
Townsend also began the pre-medical program at the University of Toronto; he then studied at the Royal College of Science and graduated with a degree in chemistry in 1924. However, after graduating Townsend could not find meaningful, well-paid work.
When Black railroad workers requested pay equal to their white counterparts, the Canadian National Railway replaced its Black employees with white employees.
Townsend returned to the United States in 1929 and remarried in 1930.
Townsend took a job as a red cap in 1932, a time that the nation was in the grip of the Great Depression. He and his fellow red caps were generally met with hostility from white railroad workers. Townsend was surprised and upset by the poor working conditions (particularly the fact that red caps were not on salary; they worked for tips).
Beginning in 1936 Townsend met with red caps from five Chicago railroad stations to discuss working conditions, pay and how a union might help improve their lot. A lack of employee representation led him to help form a union for his occupation (the International Brotherhood of Redcaps). He rose to the union’s presidency. He had been inspired by the example of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP), which was founded by A. Philip Randolph in August 1925 – despite a hostile white workforce. The BSCP encouraged and assisted Townsend in his campaign (although the two unions competed for the same workers later).
In 1938 he became the international president of the International Brotherhood of Redcaps. The union was renamed the United Transport Service Employees (UTSE) in 1940 after it invited Pullman laundry workers and porters to join the union. Townsend fought to have redcaps recognized as employees of the railway, not independent contractors. White workers who opposed the unionizing of the red caps believed that because red caps were mostly paid in tips, that they did not have the same employee status.
As president of the UTSE, Townsend lobbied Congress seeking to improve conditions for railroad station redcaps. A 1940 Supreme Court decision, coupled with the passage of federal legislation, set a flat rate of $0.10 per bag or parcel carried to or from trains. That was followed by red caps being classified as employees under the Railway Labor Act after an appeal to the Interstate Commerce Commission.
Red caps organized into two major trade unions; the United Transport Service Employees of America and the Brotherhood of Railway Clerks of the American Federation of Labor, or AFL (which had opened its membership to red caps).
The United Transport Service Employees became a Congress of Industrial Organizations affiliate in 1942. (The American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations were rivals at this time; however, they did merge and became the AFL-CIO in 1955.) Townsend’s efforts on behalf of railroad red caps led the U.S. Department of Labor to report that the “red cap is no longer a servant who strives to give personal and obsequious service. He is now an employee with some dignity, and has a job to be done and whose remuneration does not depend upon the extent to which he can ingratiate himself with the passenger whom he serves.”
When UTSE joined the CIO, Townsend was elected vice president of the Congress, becoming the first Black to hold office in a national labor organization. Townsend also was a member of the CIO’s Committee to Abolish Racial Discrimination and was elected its secretary. Within the CIO he worked to abolish racial discrimination and was a member of the national executive committee of the Workers Defense League.
Additionally, Townsend served on the six-man panel of the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU), which worked with different nations regarding union practices to exchange ideas about worker mobilization.
Following the success of UTSE, the Brotherhood of Railway Clerks of the American Federation of Labor opened its membership to red caps. Journalist George McCray wrote that Townsend was “fast becoming the most powerful Negro leader in the country.” Following the 1943 Detroit race riot (in which nine whites and 17 Blacks died), Townsend stated that democracy would only survive in the United States “if its advocates fight just as hard for the positive values of equality, labor and justice as its enemies fight for the negative values of racism, terror and exploitation.”
In 1947 Townsend represented the United States at a WFTU meeting in Tokyo. He advised that Japanese workers not become involved with political battles; he also recommended that they visit the United States to study American trade union methods. Townsend also attended the American Missionary Association’s Institute of Race Relations in 1947. He criticized the communist influence in the trade union movement, stating, “We have learned you just can’t run a labor union when certain members follow the policies of the Soviet Union.” He also served as an advisor for the International Labor Office meeting in Mexico, where he sought to eliminate race discrimination.
In addition to leading UTSE and other duties, Townsend attended Chicago’s Blackstone Law School and earned his law degree in 1951.
As noted above, the AFL and CIO merged in 1955. At that time, Townsend was elected the new organization’s president.
Sadly, he died of a heart attack on February 3, 1957 at the age of 62.
In the railroad industry, Townsend’s legacy was the UTSE, a strong labor organization that fought for its members. In recognition of his work, he was inducted into the National Railroad Hall of Fame.
In regard to the union movement, Townsend spoke out forcefully during his career, opposing communism among labor organizers and unions.
In addition to the various activities mentioned throughout this article, Townsend was also involved in the NAACP, the National Urban League and the American Council on Race Relations. In addition, her served on the Board of Trustees of Hampton Institute, a private, historically Black research university in Hampton, Virginia.
Author’s note: There are no photos of Willard S. Townsend in this article because all images are apparently copyrighted and unavailable for use.