News Americas, Mon. Feb. 6, 2023: Today we spotlight on another black Caribbean immigrant who went from a porter to organizing a porters’ labor union in 1925.
Ashley Totten, a Pullman New York porter, made the bold move of organizing a porters’ labor union in 1925 – the Pullman Porter Athletic Association.
Totten was born on St. Croix in the US Virgin Islands in 1884 and moved to New York in 1905 according to Yellowpigs.com. After serving in the U.S. Navy, he returned to New York in 1915, where he worked as a Pullman car porter on the New York Central Railroad.
In 1924 Totten was elected to represent New York porters at a wage conference in Chicago. As a result of the conference, the porters gained a meager wage increase. Disappointed by the outcome, Totten approached black labor activist Asa Philip Randolph for help the following year. After a few meetings, Randolph agreed to lead the new union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.
Totten was soon fired from Pullman and devoted all his time to organizing the Brotherhood. Though Randolph is remembered as the primary figure of the union, Totten’s work was perhaps equally instrumental.
In addition to working for the Brotherhood to improve conditions in the United States, Totten was involved in Virgin Islands politics during the unpopular naval rule. With fellow Virgin Islander Elizabeth Hendrickson, he founded and administered the Virgin Islands Protective League, an organization which aimed at addressing the racial mistreatment of those in their homeland. In 1918 Totten and Hendrickson were selected as delegates to travel to the Virgin Islands to gain firsthand knowledge of the post-transfer conditions.
Totten also served as the president of the American Virgin Islands Civic Association, was appointed by Harry S Truman to the Board of Directors of the Virgin Islands Corporation, was a chairman of the draft board in Harlem, and served as vice president of the Trade Union Division of the Liberal Party of New York City.