African Americans in Railroad History
Often overlooked and not highly documented, the contributions of African Americans to railroad history are significant. They go beyond the stereotype of porters, including efforts ranging from labor to important inventions. Fighting long-term social constraints resulting from flawed historical attitudes and policies, African Americans are today being recognized for the dignity and importance of their efforts in the field of railroading, as in other areas of endeavor, and are attaining roles of responsibility in the operation of contemporary railroads.
Granville T. Woods
"The Black Edison"
Here, we point to some of the distinguished information resources on this subject, in the hope that more will emerge.
Tears, Trains and Triumphs: The Historical Legacy of African-Americans and Pennsylvania's Railroads, by Museum Archivist Kurt R. Bell. He concludes:
Norfolk Southern, one of the major railroads operating in Pennsylvania, annually presents links to significant material, generally around Black History Month. See their home page to find current material.
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.... 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.
At right is Terry M. Williams, Carman at Lambert's Point, Norfolk, honored by NS for his leadership, active in promoting safety on the railroad and in community activities aimed at developing youth character. "A good leader is a person who can relate to a group as well as individuals. I think sincerity brings out the best in people. We have enough followers."
Granville T. Woods, electrical and mechanical inventor, patent holder, businessman. He received numerous patents on various mechanisms that aided the development of railroads, including air brake features, electric transmission, and telephone-telegraphy.
Working as a fireman in 1872 on the Danville & Southern Railroad in Missouri, Woods worked his way up to engineer and taught himself electrical and mechanical engineering while working in railroad machine shops and steel mills.
Woods's inventions were ... part of the everyday lives of millions of people. They rode street cars and subways powered by Woods's motors, supplied with electricity by Woods's electric transfer devices, and brought to safe stops by Woods's improved air brakes.
—Aaron A. Klein, The Hidden Contributors: Black Scientists and Inventors in America
Elijah McCoy, inventor, patent holder. Son of escaped slaves who sent him abroad to study mechanical engineering, he was first unable to find professional employment, and had to take a job as a fireman on the Michigan Central Railroad. He invented a mechanism for automatically oiling working machinery, which found widespread use in industry and railroads. When others invented similar devices, purchasers came to demand "the real McCoy." In 1916, he devised a graphite lubricator that was used to oil superheater locomotives.
Slave Labor in Early Railroad Construction
While many blacks and immigrant groups performed back-breaking work in building America's railroads before the Civil War, the role of slaves is an unhappy aspect which has not been forgotten. An article by San Diego State University Professor Theodore Kornweibel in the Fall-Winter 2003 edition of the distinguished journal Railroad History addresses this head-on. Questions of reparations continue, and his work provides candid factual background. While the article is not available online, prefatory remarks by the journal's editor are at their site. Mr. Kornweibel was a Scholar-in-Residence at the Museum some years ago.
Jim Crowe Cars
A regrettable aspect of early railroad transportation occurred when Black travelers had to endure the humiliation of segregation by being forced to ride in special cars. This is examined by another of Mr. Kornweibel's works, "Jim Crow Cars," appearing originally in National Railway Bulletin, vol. 62, no. 4, 1997.
Porters. The A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum presents an authoritative explanation of railroad porters and the man who organized them and brought dignity to their service. Mr. Bell's article on our site also discusses their role. For another picture of porters with explanation, click here. There are several books on the subject, including Rising from the Rails, by Larry Tye. The Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania exhibits a Pullman Company car, Lotus Club, on which porters worked.