Before he helped organize the nation’s first African American union, C.L. Dellums had dreams of becoming a lawyer. Born in Corsicana, Texas in 1900, Dellums moved to Oakland in the 1920s but found prejudice as alive and well in California as it was in Texas. Discovering that few good jobs existed for blacks, Dellums found work as a railway porter with the Pullman Company. At the time, the company was the premiere owner and operator of railway sleeping cars, a mode of transportation that was sweeping the nation. Dellums took the job but remained committed to his dreams. He read voraciously, and held the written and spoken word in high esteem. People who knew Dellums say that he could have easily been mistaken for a Harvard graduate.
Dellums worked for $2 a day plus tips and owned a billiard parlor on 7th Street to supplement his income. The company expected railroad porters to work 400 hours, or travel 11,000 miles per month, to receive full pay. Porters received no overtime and had to pay for their own uniforms and supplies.
To improve their rights, porters had attempted to organize many times without success. As soon as Dellums (along with and A. Philip Randolph) took up that cause, the Pullman Company fired him. The dismissal did not prevent Dellums from becoming a key player in the porters’ struggles. In 1929, Dellums became the union’s West Coast vice president.
At least 500 workers were fired by the Pullman Company for union activity. Because of this intimidation, it took 12 years for the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters to represent the Pullman porters and gain widespread recognition.
But Dellums didn’t reserve his activism for labor rights alone. He always recognized the fight to organize the Brotherhood as part of a larger one for racial equality. In 1948, Dellums became regional chair of the NAACP, organized civil rights marches, and was appointed to California’s first Fair Employment Practice Commission in 1959.
In 1968, he became President of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. By this time, train travel was in decline, and the Brotherhood was forced to merge with a larger union.
Dellums’ life on 7th Street was as colorful and as passionate as his politics. His billiard parlor was the center of social life. He had visitors from across the country, including entertainer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, a big star in New York’s Cotton Club.
Dellums wore a Homburg hat, smoked a pipe, and his shoes were always shined to a sparkle. While working with the Brotherhood, he took up with an activist named “Dad” Morris, whom Dellums called, “a two-fisted vulgar old man who was quite a scrapper,” and vowed to spread his spirit across the nation.
To his friends, associates, and to his own nephew, Ron Dellums, who became Oakland’s mayor in 2006 after serving as a U.S. Congressman for 27 years, C.L. Dellums was “larger than life.” He died in Oakland in 1989 at the age of 89.