Black History Month

16 02 2012

February is of course Black History Month, and its a good time to take a look at how prominent a role African-Americans have played in railroad history and vice versa.

Railroads have always been a labor-intensive industry. Even in today’s highly mechanized world it takes many skilled hands to build and maintain rights-of-way and equipment. In the early years of railroading, everything was built on the backs of labor. Railroads’ unquenchable thirst for manpower in the 19th Century sent immigration recruiters around the globe offering jobs and freedom in the US. In southern antebellum states, slavery was seen as a practical labor pool. Black slaves were often the front  lines of railroad construction. In addition, many were trained in more skilled careers to work in shops as blacksmiths, carpenters and more.

roundhouse worker

The rapid growth of American railroading was carried on the backs of thousands of African-American workers. The toils of most of these men were seldom seen or mentioned.

The Civil War set the wheels in motion for a better future for black Americans, but it far from solved the problem. In a world that still put a low price on the value of labor in general, blacks were still at the bottom of the pay and opportunity ladder. Following the war, tens of thousands of freed slaves migrated north to somewhat friendlier and more economically promising markets. Many found work on the railroads. Work could be found on track gangs, in engine and car shops, warehouses and store rooms and even some operating crafts. Higher paying and profile positions like engineers, conductors, dispatchers and supervisory roles would remain closed for many decades.

The single greatest employer for African-Americans through the early decades of the 20th Century was the Pullman Company. The job of a porter was for many years exclusively limited to blacks. The friendly and courteous service of the porter became a primary selling point for Pullman and the railroads. Despite the low wages, the job was also held in high esteem within the African-American community as well. At the peak, more than 20,000 porters rode the rails. Through the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first African-American union to win a collective bargaining agreement, working conditions and wages gradually improved.

Pullman Cars

The passenger car was a stage for the struggle of African-Americans through the 20th Century. While the job of a porter represented opportunity, segregated travel, wages and working conditions were a reminder of the limits of that freedom.

Discrimination wasn’t felt only by those who worked for the railroad. Train travel was also segregated until 1964. So called “Jim Crow Cars” were common in the South. These passenger cars were divided into separate seating areas that were often far from equal. Railroads in the North were less segregated and some of the cars passed between segregated and non-segregated states. On such routes, the separate rooms became smoking and non-smoking sections when segregation laws were not in effect.

Despite the adversity, African-Americans made major contributions to railroading technologies. Did you ever wonder what the real “real McCoy” was? The phrase became popular by railroad company’s asking suppliers for parts which were genuine and utilized a patent by Elijah McCoy for a mechanical lubricator for steam locomotives. McCoy’s lubricators kept all of a steam locomotives many moving parts properly oiled. It was so popular that many tried to copy it, but railroads wanted nothing of these knockoffs.


From couplers to communications, African-American inventors pushed the railroads progress.

Eli Janey is often credited as the inventor of the modern coupler. The truth is that his patent would not be nearly as valuable without subsequent contributions from Andrew Jackson Beard. Humphrey Reynolds patented improved ventilators for Pullman cars, but was forced to retire from and sue the company to collect on his invention. Among the most prolific black inventors, Granville Woods held more than 60 patents – most concerned railroads. His most prominent was the Multiplex Telegraph that helped operators track and coordinate train movements and even allowed trains to talk to each other.

If railroad history is a microcosm of American history in general, then it should be no surprise that the story of African-American’s would be captured here as well. From the struggles of slave labor to the brilliance of invention, from Jim Crow cars and Pullman to Barack Obama’s arrival in Washington by train – railroads have been a part of the African-American experience through all of the turmoil and triumph.



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