A. Philip Randolph memorial, Union Station

I was passing through Union Station this morning and saw one of my favorite memorials for the first time in ages, this rendering of A. Philip Randolph that stands near the gates to the train platforms. It is strange how some figures become institutionalized in our public memory and others get forgotten. Randolph has been overlooked in our civic culture, which is a tragedy. Perhaps in Randolph’s case it is because he does not fit into any neat category, but instead exists in a grey area between union leader and civil right activist. Or perhaps it is because railroads just don’t play the role in our society that they once did, and so we fail to see his significance. Among other things Randolph founded The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in 1925, a labor union comprised almost exclusively of African-American men who worked in various capacities on the railroads that then criss-crossed the entirety of the United States. I’m far from an expert on Randolph but as I understand it he had a somewhat contentious relationship with W.E.B. DuBois. Others, like Fiorello La Guardia, offered their support over the years. In 1941 he had a tense stand-off with the Roosevelt Administration over a March on Washington that Randolph wanted to organize in protest against job discrimination in the defense industry. Randolph eventually backed down but that event took place in 1963.