Tuesday, February 8, 2011


The railroad and trains have long held a sacred space in the minds of African Americans in both a literal and metaphorical way. From the times of slavery there was Harriet Tubman a leader and head conductor on the Underground Railroad. The Underground Railroad represented freedom, the hope for a better future to enslaved Africans. Tubman, or the Moses of her people as she was referred to, led those enslaved out of the bondage using an informal series of safe houses and secret routes that led to free states and Canada. The Underground Railroad, although without wheels and rails or the physical trappings of a traditional train, was no less a journey for those who undertook the trip.

The railway is also deeply embedded in African American folklore in two different and distinct ways. First with the legendary folk hero John Henry- a mythical figure that was born with a hammer in his hand. John Henry is notable for having raced against a steam powered hammer and won, only to die in victory with his 20 pound hammer still in his hand. “Henry represents the worker and serves as a folk hero for all American working-class people, representing their marginalization during changes entering the modern age in America.”

Although the legend of John Henry was said to be based on some factual evidence, more to the truth is that many African American men and women were John Henry and helped build the railways as it made its way across the American landscape.  From the early days of passenger trains African Americans have served as servants on trains; slave labor, both male and female, was utilized in some capacity. For years the railroads have been a means of employment for black communities- first the use of slave labor as maids and servants, water carriers on the early trains and later for men who worked as Pullman Porters.

The book Railroads in the African American Experience, a reviewer writes “Kornweibel presents a detailed history of the African American connection with railroads from the days of slavery through the Civil Rights Movement. He explains that railroads were one of the few sources of comparatively decent-paying employment for African Americans. Working for the railroads nonetheless meant coping with exploitation, discrimination, and even violence. Kornweibel devotes entire chapters to various railroad occupations, such as fireman, porter, and cook. He also explains how railroad work permeated African American society and culture. He supplements his text with hundreds of period photos and illustrations of African Americans in railroad settings. This wonderful book dealing forthrightly with one aspect of past racism would be an excellent source for readers interested in either African American or railroad labor history.” Copyright 2010. Library Journals

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