Author: Don Villar

For Asian American Heritage Month, we recognize Cipriano Samonte, a Filipino Pullman club car attendant who saw the injustice taking place a hundred years ago and took a stand. Samonte promoted solidarity with Blacks at Pullman in organizing Filipino workers at two of the largest Pullman hubs – Chicago and St. Louis. He broke through the cultural divide and preached common ground with Blacks in the fight against discrimination, and a voice, respect and rights at the workplace. [1] Samonte’s coworkers called him a rebel, activist, and regular guy.[2]

Brotherhood policy towards Filipinos: “We wish it understood that the Brotherhood has nothing against Filipinos. They have been used against the unionization of Pullman porters just as Negroes have been used against the unionization of white workers… We will take in Filipinos as members… we want our Filipino brothers to understand that it is necessary for them to join the Brotherhood in order to help secure conditions and wages which they too will benefit from… The only security of the Filipinos as well as the Negro Pullman porter is organizing as one common union.” [3]

Who was Cipriano?

He was born September 26, 1896 in Loaog, Ilocos Norte, a region of the Philippines with a history of resistance. During 400 years of Spanish colonial rule, the region spawned several uprisings against Spain. After the Spanish-American war of 1898, the province was the last to succumb to U.S. control and military occupation. Villagers waged a three-year resistance against the U.S. military.

In 1918, at the age of 22, Samonte, was drafted to serve in the U.S. Army during World War I.[4] Instead of seeing fighting, he and other Filipinos were sent to the sugar plantations of Hawaii. He worked as a laborer for the Hawaiian Sugar Company on the island of Kauai, joining thousands of other Filipino workers at the massive sugar plantations around the island.

Filipinos made up more than half of the plantation workforce on the islands – the others included native Hawaiians, Samoans, Chinese, and Japanese laborers. As the most recent labor immigrants to the islands, Filipinos faced lower wages and harsher conditions than other plantation workers. That unequal treatment set the stage for the need to organize.[5]

After two years of working on the Kauai sugar plantations, Samonte applied for a passport to travel to the United States. On his application, he wrote that he was traveling to study. Because Filipinos were citizens of a U.S. territory, they were not subjected to the anti-Asian immigration laws like the Chinese Exclusion Act. Higher education was the path for many Filipino immigrants to Chicago. While some returned after graduation, many stayed. Because of racism, many could not find jobs in their chosen profession. Instead, they took any service jobs they could find.

Samonte arrived in San Francisco in 1920 and made his way to Chicago.[6] In Chicago, he met and married a Black woman, Lela Williams.[7] The couple had two daughters – Cresencia and Constancia.[8] Tragedy would strike Samonte on December 23, 1931 when he lost his wife and daughter Cresencia. A few years later, Samonte married Madeline Plott, a Black woman. They lived with another Black-Filipino couple in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood – calling a walkup at 5838 South Michigan home. [9] When World War II broke out, Samonte was 43. Like all men in the U.S., he registered for the draft, but did not serve.[10]

Organizing Filipinos in the BSCP

At Pullman, Samonte played a vital role in bridging the gap between Filipino and Black workers. Many Filipinos believed that the Black leadership of the BSCP would not defend them as strong as they would Black workers. Randolph and leaders of BSCP worked to make sure that Filipinos felt welcome and part of the union. They invited Filipino attendants to attend meetings and become more active in their union.

In response to the company’s efforts to create a separate Filipino Pullman attendant union, Randolph wrote: “There can be no such thing as a colored labor union or a Filipino labor union. All unions are workers’ unions, or should be… the Brotherhood put all of its forces behind a Filipino member to give him protection, just as it will put them behind a Negro member.” [11]

In 1938 – the BSCP demonstrated that they will fight for all workers, regardless of race, in a case involving Filipino club car attendant D. B. Pascual. The Chicago Commissary District removed him from charge of a club car and assigned him to kitchen work because his supervisors claimed he could not speak and understand English fluently enough to serve passengers. Chicago Local President Milton P. Webster, Randolph’s second in command of the International and a civil rights leader in his own right, presented the union’s case for Pasqual to the board. The Union prevailed after getting managers to testify that they did not have any issues in understanding or communicating with Pasqual.[12]

A year after the BSCP won their first contract and formal recognition from the AFL, and 13 years after Pullman used Filipinos to undermine the organizing drive, solidarity between Blacks and Filipinos was sealed. Many Filipinos, especially those who had opposed unionization, feared that after the union organizing ended, they would be left out. Instead, Filipinos would continue to work side-by-side Black Pullman Porters throughout the history of the union. The solidarity between Blacks and Filipinos was made possible thanks to the hard work of activists like Samonte, who found a home in the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.[13]

[1] Chicago Federation of Labor, Federation News, January 7, 1928, Employ Chinese as Porters on Union Pacific, In addition to hiring around 400 Filipinos as club car attendants in 1925, Pullman also hired a dozen Chinese to work on the club cars. “General Organizer A. Philip Randolph regards it as not only a challenge to the faithful Pullman porters, but to organized labor as well… It is another threat for the purpose of intimidating porters who are flocking to the porters’ union. The Pullman porter is so psychologically equipped as a result of long association with the American traveling public that he is superior to practically any other group of workers in handling the traveling public in the Pullman service. This gesture of the Company in placing a few Chinese on club cars will no more stop the porters from joining the union than did the placing of a few Filipinos on the club cars when the union began to prevent porters from joining the union.”

[2] The Hierarchy of Color and Psychological Adjustment in an Industrial Environment: Filipinos, The Pullman Company, and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, by Barbara M. Posada, 1982 Tamiment Institute, Page 366 – in New York city, J. C. Brana became the Union’s field agent. He wrote regular appeals in the Black Worker newspaper, reiterating the theme of Filipino Black brotherhood. In Chicago and the Midwest, the core of Filipino unionist was led by Cipriano Samonte.

[3] Id. at Page 363.

[4] World War I Draft Registration: Cipriano E. Samonte born 9/26/1896 Laoag Ilocos Norte; Pvt Co C 1st & 2nd Hawaiian Inf; inducted 11/2/1918-7/8/1919; resident of Makeweli, Kauai, Hawaii. The Philippines was a territory of the United States following the Spanish American War, making Filipinos pseudo American citizens. 

[5] Hanapepe Massacre: in 1924, Filipino sugar plantation workers led a strike demanding better pay in Kauai that ended in violence. Local police and a quickly deputized militia opened fire on the strikers, killing 16 and wounding dozens of others. When the military arrived, they arrested all the strikers and charged nearly 60 strikers with a variety of offenses. Many of the strikers would serve some prison time… and a number were sent back to the Philippines.

[6] Application for U.S. Passport to the Governor General of the Philippines. Cypriano received a passport on January 16, 1920. He wrote that he would take a steamship from Manila that would stop in Hong Kong before arriving in San Francisco March 21, 1920.

[7] Half of the most active Filipinos in the BSCP married Blacks, Posada at 336.

[8] According to the 1930 U.S. Census, Crecensia Somante was 7 years old, born around 1923. Constancia was five years old, born in 1925. His relationship with Lela started when he arrived in Chicago.

[9] According to the 1940 U.S. Census report, Samonte and his family lived in a home with Aflreeds Pavslan, his wife Dresden, their children Lourdes, 10, Aflreeds, 8, and Rosenda, 3. Alfreeds also worked as a club car attendant.

[10]On his draft card in 1941, Cypriano and his family moved to 6146 South Langley. The Pullman Porter Commissary where he reported was located at 4053 South LaSalle.  

[11] Posada at 367.

[12] Posada at 368.

[13] Cypriano served on the executive board of the Chicago division of the BSCP and on the union’s grievance committee. He spent more than 25 years with the union and was elected several times as a delegate to the BSCP triennial convention.