On April 15, 1889, a baby boy was born in Crescent City, Florida to Reverend James and Elizabeth Randolph. The couple’s second son, they would name him Asa Philip. His parents were professionals, his father being a minister in the African Methodist Episcopalian Church and his mother being a seamstress. Both were strong supporters of equal rights for all, especially African-Americans.
When Asa was only two years old, his parents moved their family to Jacksonville, Florida, where Asa lived until young adulthood. Although the community to which the Randolph family moved was progressive for Blacks, racial discrimination and violence were never far removed. According to the biography of A. Philip Randolph featured by the American Federation of Labor & Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) on its website, “From his father, Randolph learned that color was less important than a person’s character and conduct. From his mother, he learned the importance of education and of defending oneself physically, if necessary. Randolph remembered vividly the night his mother sat in the front room of their house with a loaded shotgun across her lap, while his father tucked a pistol under his coat and went off to prevent a mob from lynching a man in the local county jail.”
An exceptionally bright student, A. Phillip Randolph matriculated Cookman Institute, one of America’s first institutions of higher learning for African-Americans; in 1923, Cookman Institute would merge with the Daytona Educational and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls. The training school, founded by educator and activist Mary McLeod Bethune, and the institute formed what is presently known as Bethune-Cookman University. At Cookman, Randolph excelled in academics, including literature and drama; extracurricular activities such as choir; and sports, like baseball, which he aced. Crowning these accomplishments, Randolph would graduate as the valedictorian of The Class of 1907.
Upon graduation, Asa Randolph moved to the Harlem community of the Manhattan borough of New York City in 1911. Although he wanted to become an actor, he, honoring his parents’ wishes in him becoming formally educated, chose to attend City College. He studied sociology and English literature. During this time, he worked several jobs of service, including as a waiter and a porter. Highly concerned with African-Americans’ lack of equitable access for employment, Randolph and Chandler Owen, a law student at Columbia University in the City of New York, created in 1912 the Brotherhood of Labor, an employment agency. Randolph and Owen, who shared similar intellectual interests and views on socialism, significantly the ideologies of the Industrial Workers of the World, felt their agency was integral to organizing Black workers. One of the earliest efforts of Randolph to organize labor occurred when he, working as a server on a steamship, spurred other Black workers to unite against the terrible living conditions imposed upon them.