Tears, Trains and Triumphs:
The Historical Legacy of African-Americans
and Pennsylvania's Railroads
The impact of African-Americans on Pennsylvania's railroads clearly has been an important, but nonetheless missing, chapter in the history of American experience. It is a human story marked by racism and exploitation, but at the same time, symbolic of hope for blacks. Railroads held the promise of employment and opportunity for thousands, and enabled many African-Americans to lead long, fulfilling careers at a time when working opportunities for persons of color were, at best, limited.
On several levels, a job on the railroad represented a position of social status within the black community. Though railroads in the southern states had a much greater labor pool from which to draw countless black workers, companies like the Pennsylvania Railroad, the Philadelphia & Reading and others in the northern states often gainfully employed blacks. At the same time, they segregated their families and friends who used these systems to travel.
The Great Migration saw the arrival of hundreds of thousands of blacks into the northern regions of the United States, for which the railroads themselves were chiefly responsible. These new arrivals served as Pullman porters, common laborers, redcaps, hostlers, track workers, not to mention a host of other occupations. Though the study of black railroaders has traditionally focused on those in the south, African-Americans comprised an important segment of the workforce in Pennsylvania, and their stories merit our attention.
Since the earliest days of transportation, blacks have played an important role in railroading. However, in order to understand the legacy of blacks and the railroads of the Keystone State, one must first examine their involvement in railroading south of the Mason-Dixon Line. In the antebellum south, blacks appealed to railroad owners as a cheap, abundant source of labor, where as many as 20,000 slaves were utilized. As early as 1830, black slaves built portions of the early Baltimore & Ohio in Maryland. In one of the saddest chapters of American history, plantation owners along the right-of-way leased or rented slaves to help in the construction, and, in exchange, received stock from the railroads. The work was manual and demanding, animal power was used wherever possible. There was little mechanical help. When the first passenger train in America lumbered out of Baltimore in 1830, black workers were stationed like minutemen along the 13-mile route to Ellicott's Mills.
When the North Carolina Rail Road began operations in the early 1850s, black labor again predominated. Below the rank of supervisor, two-thirds of the employees were African-Americans, and almost all of these were slaves. Railroads in the south both owned and rented slaves. The going rate in 1859 in North Carolina was $160 per year for firemen and other train crew, and $200 per year for mechanics. For this payment to his owner, the slave received food and shelter of some questionable quality, a hat and a blanket.
Ejection of an African-American woman
from a white coach, circa 1860s
Since antebellum southern laws restricted blacks from becoming engineers on the trains, African-Americans held down skilled jobs like firemen and brakemen. On the track, they worked as section hands and in bridge repairs. In the shop, they worked as carpenters, plumbers, steamfitters and mechanics. Rarely were free blacks employed, for they were viewed suspiciously by whites. After the Civil War and emancipation, southern railroads still depended on their black workers, but now as paid employees. The Pullman Company rushed to hire recently freed slaves to prepare beds, handle baggage, clean cars and pamper passengers. Slavery may have been abolished, but the degradation of black life in the south continued, in full force.
In the northern states on the eve of the Civil War, blacks were usually discouraged from taking railroad jobs, owing chiefly to widespread racial discrimination. In Pennsylvania in the 1840s, Sam Jones, a young black itinerate, was hired by the Philadelphia & Columbia Railroad as a baggageman. Jones is believed to be the first black ever hired by a Pennsylvania company. Many blacks like Jones later worked as porters, passenger car attendants, dining car chefs and waiters, employed by either the railroads or the Pullman Company.
Pullman Porter assists Miss Phoebe Snow while Red Cap stands ready, DL&W RR publicity photo circa 1900.
Segregation of black passengers on the railroads of the north was yet another obstacle with which they wrestled. Precedence for de facto segregation of blacks was already in place during the early 1840s, when various omnibus, stagecoach and steamship lines assigned black passengers to separate accommodations. An Austrian engineer, Franz Ritter von Gerstner, who visited the United States on an inspection tour from 1838 to 1840 found "Jim Crow" segregation in effect in both the South and North. On the Baltimore & Susquehanna Railroad, which ran from Baltimore to York, Pennsylvania, he recorded an eight-wheel baggage car which contained three sections: the first for luggage, a second with “latrines,” and a third for “Negroes.”
In 1841, the term “Jim Crow” identified a separate coach for blacks on the Boston & Providence Railroad in Massachusetts. This practice did not go unchallenged, however. Debate over segregated seating of black passengers on Pennsylvania's railroads came to a head by the late 1860s. Throughout the North, public accommodations and transportation facilities were commonly segregated or reserved for whites only. It was only a matter of time before Pennsylvania abolitionists would campaign for racial desegregation in public transportation.
The earliest reported judicial endorsement of the separate-but-equal doctrine in Pennsylvania's transportation laws occurred in 1867, when West Chester and Philadelphia Railroad Company v. Miles came before the state Supreme Court. The WC&P was a private carrier that operated a 26.4-mile route between the namesake stations. At issue was a rule of the company that required blacks to sit at one end of the company's cars. Mrs. Vera Miles, an African-American passenger, refused to comply with the law by selecting a seat toward the middle of the day coach, an area designated for white passengers only. When she refused to move after a stern warning by the conductor, she was ejected from the car. Mrs. Miles sued the railroad, and her landmark case not only awarded her damages but earned her a place in Pennsylvania history as well.
This landmark decision took place concurrently with legislation passed by the Pennsylvania Senate that made discrimination on the state's railroad and trolley lines illegal. In particular, discrimination on streetcar companies in Philadelphia prompted abolitionists in 1865 to introduce a bill in the senate to prohibit segregation in public transportation, the first of its kind ever to appear in Pennsylvania. Shepherded by state Senator Morrow B. Lowry, it stated, in part: "...it shall not be lawful for any passenger railway company, within this Commonwealth, to make or enforce any rule, regulation or practice, excluding any race of people from its passenger cars on account of color." Although this was defeated by the House, a second bill, prepared by the Equal Rights League two years later, proved to be the most enduring.
In March 1867, a bill forbidding railway corporations to exclude or segregate black passengers was swiftly approved in the Senate, by a vote of 27 to 15. Governor Geary signed the bill into Pennsylvania law, requiring all railroad and trolley companies in the Commonwealth to carry all passengers "without preference or distinction to color." On the twentieth anniversary of the law, in 1887, the General Assembly passed "An Act to provide Civil Rights for all People, Regardless of Race or Color." It prohibited discrimination by any person, company or corporation in all public places including on railroads, street railways and omnibus lines. For violators who failed to comply, a $100 fine was charged. The era of segregation on Pennsylvania's railroads - however short in duration - drew to a close.
A rash of Southern legislation in the 1870s and 1880s established the oppressive "Jim Crow" laws, which provided for the legal separation of the races on the railroads south of the Mason-Dixon Line. In 1896, the U. S. Supreme Court declared in its landmark decision Plessy v. Ferguson that railroad segregation did not violate equal protection under the law, providing that facilities for blacks were "separate but equal."
They were, in fact, not equal. Perhaps the most tangible symbol of de jure racial segregation were the "Jim Crow" cars, which were usually coaches or combination baggage-passenger cars with separate seating accommodations that divided black passengers from whites using a distinct partition. These cars were usually worn, seedy and of aged construction that reeked of smoke and contained poor, or non-existent, bathing facilities. Moreover, southern station waiting rooms were segregated in a similar fashion.
Although segregation was illegal in Pennsylvania after the Civil War, "Jim Crow" cars were not entirely absent from Pennsylvania's railroads. It was common for many passenger trains on the Pennsylvania Railroad to include in their consists "Jim Crow" coaches that originated on southern railroads, like the Norfolk & Western or the Southern Railway. As late as the 1940s, a Norfolk & Western "through coach" on a Pennsylvania Railroad passenger train originated in Roanoke, Virginia and passed through Harrisburg and ultimately terminated at Broad Street Station, Philadelphia.
It contained heavy curtains and a glass divider that was used as a smoking section north of Maryland, but on the southern leg of the journey, it had been used for segregating black passengers. The Maryland & Pennsylvania Railroad, or "MA & PA," a short line which ran north from Baltimore to York, Pennsylvania, once rostered a coach and combine that both contained "Jim Crow" sections to segregate black passengers. Whether these cars were used to segregate black passengers on the Pennsylvania leg of this line's operations still remains a mystery.
For many blacks after the Civil War, the railroads served as a means of escape from the brutal social and economic conditions of the rural south in what is probably the most important internal human migration in the United States, the "Great Migration" of African-Americans from the south to the north. This movement transpired in two phases: from 1916 through 1929 and then again, in the first half of the 1940s, it surged. Families in the south tracked an endless cycle of sharecropping with no hope of owning their own land, and moved north to make new beginnings in the industrial cities of the northeast and midwest. Beginning in 1916, the Pennsylvania and Baltimore & Ohio railroads began offering free rail transportation for southern migrants, recruited for railroad work, into the Commonwealth, where many were then recruited for the steel industries of Steelton and Pittsburgh, the coal mines of the southwestern section of the state, the railroad industry in Erie and on the Pennsylvania Railroad in Harrisburg, as well as domestic and shipyard work in Philadelphia.
The Pullman porters became the intelligence network for the Great Migration. Black families heading north, whether by ship or rail, needed to know what safe routes to take to minimize trouble, what towns along the way to avoid, what places along the way that could provide a safe haven and a safe night's rest and the main contacts for housing when the desired city was reached. Porters were well-traveled and they collected this vital information which was disseminated widely in the black community. They also picked up copies of African-American newspapers from the north, particularly the Chicago Defender.
Although porters passed on all of this information freely to black families on the move, they did so at some personal risk. Supervisors for the Pullman Company and the railroads frowned on such activity as a kind of sedition, and the porter could lose his job as a result. Therefore, nearly all of his communication was passed on with other travelers totally unaware, yet this hidden communication network was a vital link in one of the most important demographic changes that shaped modern American life.
During World War I, many northern railroads experienced labor shortages and recruited southern black migrants to help fill the need. The railroads were in growing need of upgrading their facilities and repairing antiquated tracks and equipment at a time when the once-plentiful supply of cheap European labor grew scarce. Desperate to fill vital positions vacated by war-bound employees, virtually every main line railroad company in Pennsylvania soon recruited black labor into its workforce, including the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western, Erie, Philadelphia & Reading, Baltimore & Ohio, New York Central, Delaware & Hudson, Norfolk & Western, Pittsburgh & Lake Erie and others.
Many railroads, like the Pennsylvania, were more inclined to use black laborers because they commanded cheaper wages than whites. William Wallace Atterbury, the vice-president in charge of operations for the Pennsylvania Railroad, (and who later served as its tenth president) conceived the idea of dispatching labor agents to the deep south to hire black workers. He commissioned the Reverend James Duckrey, a Baptist minister and messenger in his Altoona office, as his recruiter and labor agent. Duckrey's first recruitment drive in the spring of 1916 took him to Jacksonville, Florida, after which he returned to Pennsylvania with several trainloads of willing black laborers. By the end of that year, the Pennsylvania Railroad and the Erie combined brought 12,000 blacks into the Keystone State, many of whom were housed in boxcars and tents.
Ernest Grey, an African-American Pennsylvania Railroad employee born in Cat Island, Georgia around 1897, fondly recalls his experiences on a Philadelphia-bound "migration special" in 1916:
I come on the free transportation. At that particular time they had it out that they wanted to get on out all the colored people from down there that they possibly could, so they sent a train. And I told my father that he had promised me a trip to Philadelphia. They wouldn't let us board at the union sheds. So we had to board the train...going out from Charleston. So we had...to get the train coming north...about 13 coaches long. Everybody going, all of us coming. They didn't want nobody that didn't have any seat. But they hid when the man came through and check, you see, you hide under the seat like that. And that's the way we got away from there.
Racism ordered the hierarchy of railroad jobs held by blacks. Why was this the case? The answer lies in the rise of tenuous, shaky relationships between working-class whites and blacks. Blacks were never employed as engineers, conductors, telegraphers, towermen or as supervisors, for these higher-level positions were filled by members of the white-dominated railroad labor unions. African-American workers historically were employed in various laborer or service occupations, such as in passenger train operations, freight handling, in yards and at equipment maintenance facilities.
Typically African-Americans have held positions as hostlers, redcaps, waiters, chefs, porters, baggage handlers, engine wipers, track laborers, car cleaners, janitors, attendants and shoeshines. A large number of black women, in particular, served as car cleaners and grounds maintenance workers on the Reading Company during the Second World War, while their husbands were off at war. The majority of African-American railroad employees provided services to passengers in large or medium-sized terminals where large volumes of commerce were moved daily. Their smiling faces and courteous demeanor bespoke the emphasis on customer service that the railroads believed black workers could provide their clientele. And, since many of these positions were considered among the lowest occupations in the company, they were generally the first men released by the railroads.
The largest percentage of black employees holding railroad jobs worked in track maintenance operations. In 1910, 70,000 or 15% of all 453,925 maintenance-of-way positions were held by blacks. Organized into section gangs, these men often engaged in work chants, which, of necessity, gave rhythm to their labors. Blacks assigned to track work, as well as engine service, were subject to the same rigorous training as any of their white counterparts. Contrary to popular belief, all of these jobs were highly skilled by any measure of the word.
In the mid-nineteenth century, there is a surprising absence of blacks employed on Pennsylvania's railroads. In an 1860 census conducted by the city of Philadelphia, not a single black male is listed as having a position in the railroad trade. Between 1890 and 1910, the number of blacks employed by the railroads increased dramatically. In 1910, it is estimated that 953 blacks were employed on railroads in Pennsylvania; by 1930 that number had risen dramatically to 4,164. In 1928, the U. S. Department of Labor had accounted for 321 blacks employed as skilled mechanics in railroad shop work in the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Johnstown, Altoona and East Conemaugh facilities.
Despite the overtly racist attitude of railroad employees and management during the modern civil rights era, African-American railroaders made their greatest advancement in the workplace through union membership, albeit those few which permitted their participation. In 1944, a landmark Supreme Court case involving a black Louisville & Nashville fireman established the right of blacks not to be denied jobs because of union discrimination. In fact, it was A. Phillip Randolph, longtime president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, who led many of the efforts to secure civil rights in the 1930s, 1940s and into the 1960s.
The discriminatory practices of the all-white railway brotherhoods excluded blacks, and so black railroaders were late in organizing. The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters was founded in 1925, the Brotherhood of Red Caps in 1935 and later, the Brotherhood of Dining Car Employees finally organized black workers. But only as Pullman Company porters, did African-Americans hold positions of public prominence. Pullman Company work rules, however, kept pay rates and working conditions well below those of other railroaders. It was under A. Phillip Randolph's leadership in 1937 when Pullman porters received better working conditions and unprecedented wage increases. In 1931, a porter with 11,000 miles of service earned $77.50 per month, plus tips and accrued mileage. By the late 1930s, salaries for Pullman porters increased dramatically, as a direct result of labor union advancements.
Some viewed the job as a chance to travel, and many were afforded mobility and preferred social status within the black community; for most it served as a means of escape from the poverty cycle. As a direct result of Randolph's leadership and a coalition of black organizations, President Franklin Roosevelt in 1941 banned racial discrimination in most defense industries and many other sectors of federal employment. In the 1960s, Randolph stood as one of Martin Luther King Jr’s most powerful allies; in fact, it was Randolph who chaired the committee which organized the 1963 March On Washington.
Once the struggle for equal rights was won, and the desegregation of railroad travel was achieved by a series of Supreme Court decisions in 1949, 1950 and 1955, black railroad workers made tremendous strides in the railroad industry during the 1960s and 1970s. Harrisburg native Harry Thomas was 18 when he was hired in 1969 to work as one of the first black brakemen on the Penn Central. His stepfather, who worked on a track crew, encouraged him to apply for the position. Thomas recalls, "The African-Americans on the track crew would always start hootin' and hollerin' when I went by. They'd tell me how proud they were of me. It gave me a warm feeling."
Thomas's account is but one of dozens of stories highlighting the advancement of African-American railroad workers during this period. For the first time ever, railroad managers were promoting blacks to better paying positions, including engineers, conductors, section foremen, portable equipment operators, linemen and signal maintainers, as well as supervisory positions in middle and upper level management. Others advanced as truck drivers, loaders and checkers at large railroad terminals in urban areas. For generations, most black railroaders historically had worked their entire careers stuck in the same jobs and performing the same tasks, with little hope for advancement of any kind. Now, significant strides were made for African-Americans certain of their positions on the railroad.
It is safe to say that blacks today [written in 1990s] are no longer drawn to the railroad industry. Since the 1970s, corporate bankruptcies and mergers have trimmed jobs of all railroaders across the board. Scores of veteran black railroaders, both male and female, faced lay-offs or chose early retirement. Nationwide, though blacks now comprise 12% of the total population of the United States, they hold a meager 9% of all railroad jobs. This translates into 5% managerial or professional positions, underrepresented 20% skilled laborers and 28% service-oriented personnel. Several class 1 railroads, among them Conrail, Union Pacific, CSX and Norfolk Southern, employ African-Americans in top corporate positions to train crew.
Today, it is not uncommon to find several college-educated African-American railroaders who are second or third-generation in their families to have worked on a Pennsylvania railroad. Quite an honor, indeed a rich legacy, when one considers just how far blacks have come from the beginnings of public transportation to the present day.
The experiences of African-Americans on Pennsylvania's railroads has been one of continuing struggle. The railroad industry provided opportunities for thousands where previously there were none. Racial oppression and segregation in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries made it difficult for many to travel and work on any railroad, in Pennsylvania or elsewhere. The situation has improved considerably, thanks in part to the progress made in civil rights and empowerment of blacks in the workforce.
But this story is far from over. Clearly, African-Americans will continue to play a significant role on the railroads throughout the Keystone State well into the next millennium. And, if history is any indication, their contributions will endure in the face of adversity for a very long time.