Founded in Chicago in 1915, the Railway Men's International Benevolent Industrial Association (RMIBIA) was part of a general upsurge in working-class organization and black militancy in the World War I era. The RMIBIA enlisted in its ranks black locomotive firemen, brakemen, switchmen, train porters, machinists and helpers, Pullman porters, and dining car cooks and waiters; it also united a number of already existing southern associations of black firemen and brakemen. During and after the war, black railroaders faced systematic discrimination in promotion, pay, and access to certain higher paying jobs. Excluded from the powerful white railroad brotherhoods and in many cases from the American Federation of Labor (AFL), black railroaders formed their own organizations to press for improvements in wages and working conditions. In its decade-long existence, the RMIBIA represented black workers before railroad managers and especially before federal agencies like the Railway Labor Board to argue for wage increases, which it sometimes won. Association leaders lobbied Republican party politicians on behalf of legislation prohibiting discriminatory contracts, testified before congressional and state legislative committees to publicize the plight of their members, and initiated lawsuits over wages, job security, and working conditions. Although membership figures are not verifiable, the RMIBIA claimed 15,000 members at its height in 1920, with seventeen chapters with 1,200 members in Chicago alone in 1922.
Throughout its existence, the RMIBIA remained an all-black organization. Shortly after its founding, however, its leader, dining car waiter Robert L. Mays, pursued affiliation with the AFL. Mays' proposal to create a single in dustrial union of all-black railroaders ran afoul of the AFL's staunch commitment to craft unionism, as well as its members' reluctance to sanction an officially all-black union, although they rarely hesitated to sanction officially all-white unions. Operating outside of the AFL, Mays and the RMIBIA publicly and aggressively denounced the racism of the AFL and the white railroad brotherhoods, calling on black railroaders to stand together to resist white efforts to remove them from their jobs and to win higher pay and better conditions. RMIBIA organizers repeatedly rejected white union officials' efforts to enroll blacks in “federal” labor unions under AFL control, arguing that only after organized white labor abandoned its exclusionary practices and embraced full racial equality would the need for independent black associations end.
The RMIBIA entered a period of decline in the early 1920s. Wartime labor policies that aimed at reducing labor turnover and unrest had provided wage increases to railroad and other workers, recognized workers' right to organize, and generally improved working conditions. Following the war, however, changes in federal policy put an end to prolabor rulings. Dependent upon favorable government rulings, the RMIBIA had no strategy for dealing with the new, hostile political environment. In its final years, the RMIBIA advocated insurance and banking schemes and promoted, with little success, black business along with the Tuskegee Institute and the National Urban League (NUL). Internal craft divisions surfaced within the association, and opposition to Mays' somewhat dictatorial leadership style grew. By mid-decade, the RMIBIA had ceased to function as an effective organization.
Failure was by no means unique to the RMIBIA, for the era following World War I witnessed tremendous clashes between organized labor and capital that set back even the