African American labor leader Willard S. Townsend was born on December 4, 1895, in Cincinnati, Ohio, to Willard and Cora Elizabeth Townsend. In 1938 he organized railway workers of several Chicago, Illinois stations to form the International Brotherhood of Redcaps and remained the union’s president for the rest of his life.
Townsend’s father Willard was a contractor, and he married his cousin, Cora. Townsend worked at the Cincinnati rail station from 1912 to 1914, after he graduated from the local high school. Two years later, he joined the army and served in France during World War I as a lieutenant. When he came home from the war, Townsend helped form an all-black company of the Ohio National Guard. He shortly after entered the Illinois School of Chiropody in Chicago, transferred to the University of Toronto’s premedical program in Ontario, Canada, then graduated with a degree in chemistry from the Royal College of Science in Toronto, in 1924. Townsend moved back to Chicago in 1929 and married Consuelo Mann in 1930.
Townsend worked as a redcap (a baggage porter at railway stations) after high school and during college. When he returned to the job in 1932 during the Great Depression, the low wages, antipathy from white railroad workers, and lack of employee representation inspired Townsend to form a union for his occupation. He was motivated by the example of A. Philip Randolph’s Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP), which had successfully formed despite a hostile white workforce. The BSCP encouraged and helped Townsend in his campaign, although the two unions would later compete for the same workers.
After a series of meetings with workers from five Chicago stations starting in 1936, the International Brotherhood of Redcaps was formed in 1938. In 1940 the union was renamed the United Transport Service Employees (UTSE) union, after inviting Pullman laundry workers and porters to join. Townsend fought to have redcaps recognized as employees of the railway, not independent contractors. White workers who