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The African-American Railroad Experience

Gainesville Midland track maintenance crew, CA. `1890
Gainesville Midland track maintenance crew, CA. `1890
The African-American Railroad Experience
Ted Kornweibel is the author of "Railroads in the African American Experience: A Photographic Journey," the first book to detail the entire sweep of the African-American experience with America's railroads. Using many dozens of photos, many of which he purchased himself, the book begins with slavery and the birth of Southern Railroading and continues through Jim Crow and 20th century racism.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. The image of the African-American railroad worker is a staple in the cultural history of America. The face of the black Pullman porter was in railroad advertising for years. The porter became a recognizable character in American art and music and, in the early days of Hollywood, black actors portraying train attendants and porters were one of the few imagines of African-Americans we ever saw in the movies. But the link between African-Americans and the growth of American railroads is much deeper than carrying luggage or preparing a sleeping car. In a new book that’s lushly illustrated with many never before published photos, we learn about the extent of what railroads meant to black Americans, in terms of employment, culture, travel and civil rights. My guest is Theodore Kornweibel. He’s SDSU emeritus professor of African-American history. His book is called "Railroads in the African-American Experience: A Photographic Journey." And it’s a pleasure to welcome you, Ted, to These Days.

THEODORE KORNWEIBEL (Professor Emeritus, African-American History, San Diego State University): Good to be here.

CAVANAUGH: Now we’d like to invite our audience to join the conversation. If you have a story about the African-American experience and American railroads, maybe you have a family memory or a personal story you’d like to share, or a question, give us a call with your questions and comments. Our number is 1-888-895-5727, that’s 1-888-895-KPBS. You know, just off the bat, Ted, I have to tell you congratulations on this book. It’s just really a remarkably beautiful book.


KORNWEIBEL: It is. It is. It should win a design award.

CAVANAUGH: Yes, it actually should. In going through the book, I, personally, was surprised to learn that African-Americans started their work on the railroads during slavery. Tell us how that came about.

KORNWEIBEL: The entire southern railroad network that was built during the slavery era was built almost exclusively by slaves. Some of the railroads owned slaves, other railroads hired or rented slaves from slave owners. And the most shocking thing that I found was that women as well as men were actually involved in the hard, dangerous, brutal work of railroad construction and continued to work for railroads after they were built in lesser roles. But in the construction phase, little difference between the abilities, considered abilities, for black women, and white women would never have been considered for any of those jobs.

CAVANAUGH: Now one of the first stories you tell in this book is the story of Rose. She’s a slave who belonged to the man who was contracted to build the Charleston and Savannah Railroad. Tell us about her. How did her life change when she was ordered to join this railroad effort?

KORNWEIBEL: Well, it’s a fascinating series of letters from her owner to other individuals and we can piece together Rose’s story quite well through that. And she apparently had been a domestic servant living in a not a terribly wealthy but an urban household in the more moderate climate parts of South Carolina.


CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm. What year are we talking about?

KORNWEIBEL: Talking about the 18 – 1858, ’59, shortly before the Civil War.


KORNWEIBEL: And she had been accustomed, according – actually to domestic work so she probably was a cook because that’s what she was later put to. She would’ve had kitchen utensils, she would’ve been able to go every morning to the daily market to pick up fresh produce and so forth, a garden perhaps. She was sent several hundred miles distant to the coastline where this railroad was being built through swamps. It was a brutal building project that for miles and miles they had to actually build on pilings. There wasn’t solid ground. And she found herself a cook with crude utensils with just the bare flour, lard, bacon, molasses, cooking for a mixed group of enslaved black and some Irish railroad workers. The only woman there, isolated, vulnerable, and that was…

CAVANAUGH: Completely out of her element, yes.

KORNWEIBEL: Completely out of her element.

CAVANAUGH: Yes. Now you mentioned something that also I found extremely interesting, that these so-called hired slaves were working on the railroad side by side by laborers who were being paid for their work on the railroad. Is that correct?

KORNWEIBEL: That’s right. That’s right. Both black, free blacks, as well as white workers. There were some categories of work in which both slaves and free persons worked, like brakemen, like firemen stoking the firebox on a steam locomotive. Other jobs like maintaining the track were almost exclusively the province of black workers. And what’s significant here is that the pattern set during slavery, what jobs blacks could and could not do—that’s the wrong way of putting it—what blacks were allowed to do or not allowed to do, that then became the national pattern after the Civil War.

CAVANAUGH: Oh, I see. I see. I’m speaking with Ted Kornweibel. He is SDSU emeritus professor of African-American history. He’s also the author of a new book, "Railroads in the African-American Experience." And we are taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Ted, how did you find this out? Is there a lot of information about – on slavery during the beginning of the railroad era?

KORNWEIBEL: Well, there’s actually quite a bit of information. Much of it comes from the railroads’ annual reports that were prepared for stockholders because they would list the assets. They would list the expenses. So they would list the number of slaves who were in various categories, how much they had paid to rent them or if they purchased them, what the value of those slaves were. If there were fatalities, what – that was in the loss column. So the railroads’ annual reports reveal a great deal.

CAVANAUGH: Now after the Civil War, when ex-slaves were paid workers for the railroad, as you say, some of the jobs stayed the same for a long time…


CAVANAUGH: …but what was the attraction of the railroads for freed slaves?

KORNWEIBEL: That’s a good question. The railroads were the best—in the south—were the best alternative to escaping two worse fates, either agriculture which often meant sharecropping, which meant you were in debt year after year after year, or domestic service. The railroads were the most important industry that blacks ever worked in. Blacks worked more – More blacks were railroaders than were steel workers, were coalminers, were loggers, you pick the industry that African-Americans participated in railroading, and in a wide sense, more than any other industry. So this is the—the—African-American industrial experience.

CAVANAUGH: Yes, I understand your point.

KORNWEIBEL: And for southern blacks especially to be able to get – it was low pay but to get a steady job, a steady income – There’s a blues that says ‘when you marry, marry a railroad man, every day Sunday, a dollar in your hand.’

CAVANAUGH: Now I have to ask you, if I may, Ted, about the incredible amount of photographs and illustrations you have in your book, “Railroads in the African-American Experience.” Where – how did you compile these images? Where did you find them?

KORNWEIBEL: Well, one source was eBay.

CAVANAUGH: Ahh… So you just put out the call, huh?

KORNWEIBEL: Well, I didn’t put out the call. I just combed…


KORNWEIBEL: For months and months, I just combed every day under – searching under railroads, blacks, African-Americans, and I found some absolutely fantastic photographs. I shot them all through Photoshop to clean them up…


KORNWEIBEL: …but you’ll find many never before seen, never before published photographs in this book.

CAVANAUGH: You have African-American workers working on the tracks, you have them as porters, you have even photographs of African-American nannies on the train taking care of children while, you know, as part of their duties as being nannies to the children themselves.

KORNWEIBEL: Those were the Pullman maids. And Pullman maids only served, at most, half of the length of period that Pullman sleeping car porters did.


KORNWEIBEL: But beginning in the early 1900s, in the heyday, being the luxury travel of the 1920s, only the most luxurious trains had Pullman maids and they assisted, especially, lady passengers or women with children. They were expected to be able to give manicures, to do – to dress hair, assist ladies with the bath, assist with small children. Some of them were nurses and might be called upon for assistance like that. But some of the touching images are—and they’re posed images—of these maids with white children and entertaining them and showing them the scenery and so forth.

CAVANAUGH: And, as you say, they are posed. How did you happen, Ted, to take on this project?

KORNWEIBEL: Well, I’ve been a lifelong rail fan so railroads have always been fascinating to me. And about 18 years ago, I received a call from a railroad museum in Pennsylvania asking if they knew – if I knew of anyone that they could bring in to give a talk on black railroaders. And I said, I didn’t know but I do some bibliographic search, see if there’s somebody out there who could do that, and I turned up nothing. So I gave them a call and said if you can stand an amateurish presentation with some slides copied from books, I’ll do it for you.


KORNWEIBEL: And I did, and the response was very, very positive, that blacks in the audience, whites in the audience, everybody recognized that this was a buried history of railroad – a buried part of railroad history, that people knew about the Pullman porters and the dining car waiters and that was it.


KORNWEIBEL: There’s so much more.

CAVANAUGH: Now you were a professor of African-American studies for many years at SDSU. Ted, you are not black so how did that come about?

KORNWEIBEL: Well, I was involved in the civil rights movement in the 1960s and that gave me passion and principles that directed me towards that but what really sealed my passion for African-American history was my first teaching job, which was at a still-segregated, all-black state college in Texas, Prairie View A&M College. And I began to read in the library so that I could teach some black history to my students and I got the bug.

CAVANAUGH: And it hasn’t left you. And it’s ended up right now in this beautiful book. Let me go back to the experience that you’re talking about, African-Americans and the railroads, as you say, it’s not all Pullman porters. One of the most dangerous jobs on the railroad was that of brakeman. How were trains actually stopped before automatic air brakes?

KORNWEIBEL: Well, before automatic air brakes and before modern safety coupler knuckles, trains had to be stopped, that’s trains of any length, had to be stopped by brakemen on individual cars turning a brake wheel to engage the brakes. When the car had slowed or had gotten from the station and was starting up again, they had to manually turn that brake wheel the opposite direction.


KORNWEIBEL: Now a train out in the country in the middle of winter, you had to hop from top to top of freight cars and manually turn these brakes then manually turn them off. It was extremely dangerous. The brakemen fell off, they fell between cars and were crushed. It was – the air brake was probably the single most important safety feature ever developed.

CAVANAUGH: And those early brakemen, was that one of the jobs that African-Americans were, quote, unquote, allowed to do?

KORNWEIBEL: In the south, that was a job that was pretty much preferred for blacks. It was defined for many years as a white man’s – as a black man’s job. Now when automatic couplers came in and air brakes, those jobs became more attractive to whites and so at that point in history, early 20th century, whites began to push blacks out of those occupations.

CAVANAUGH: Before we have to take a break, let me sneak in one call. We are taking your calls, 1-888-895-5727. Allison is calling us from downtown San Diego. Good morning, Allison. Welcome to These Days.

ALLISON (Caller, San Diego): Hi. Can you hear me?

CAVANAUGH: Yes, I certainly can.

ALLISON: Hi. My grandfather was a porter on the Pennsylvania line and he had that job until he retired. I believe he got it during the war. And one of our – my family’s friends who lived in – anyway, one of our family’s friends was a chef on the Santa Fe, and our family had great respect for the railroad because that was the way we got around. And we just – as a child, we used to go to Pennsylvania Station and see my grandfather working and look at all the locomotives and just – we were just thoroughly impressed.

CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you. Thank you for that – sharing that family memory with us, Allison. Does that sound like a lot of family memories that you’ve been hearing in compiling this book?

KORNWEIBEL: It sure does. And, Allison, have you been able to trace the details of these people’s careers?

ALLISON: No, actually I – I’m ashamed of myself but I never even tried. I just knew it as a fact. I can remember when the chef came home on a train, you know, came home. And I remember what his cooking tasted like because he was influenced by southwest cooking. And, of course, I saw my grandfather every day come home from work. So I’m, you know, I really didn’t document it, I just have…


ALLISON: …such a strong memory that I didn’t think about it. But I should.

KORNWEIBEL: Well, we can talk about some ways to research that.

CAVANAUGH: All right, that sounds great. We do have to take a short break right now. Allison, thank you for that call. We’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. We’re talking about the new book, “Railroads in the African-American Experience.” You’re listening to These Days on KPBS.

CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. My guest is Theodore Weibel – Kornweibel. He is SDSU emeritus professor of African-American history. We’re talking about his new book called “Railroads in the African-American Experience.” It’s a book that’s filled with illustrations, photographs and essays about what railroads meant to black Americans in terms of employment, culture, travel and civil rights. We’re taking your calls if you have a family memory or a personal story you’d like to share or a question you’d like to ask about the African-American experience and American railroads. Our number is 1-888-895-5727. You said in – before we went to the break, Ted, that you had some pointers as to how people might be able to go about researching their own personal family’s history with the railroads. How can you do that?

KORNWEIBEL: Well, the bad news is that the railroads themselves tended to discard personnel records but if you have a Pullman porter or a Pullman maid or a Pullman lounge car attendant in your family, the full Pullman employment records are in the Newbury Library in Chicago and you can trace their careers, you can see what they got demerits for, what they got commendations for, trace their pay trajectory, so a lot of great – and, of course, the runs that they were on so you could kind of trace their itineraries. So for Pullman porters, it’s quite easy.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s talk a little bit about George Pullman and these Pullman porters. He, George Pullman, pioneered sleeping accommodations on trains and, from what I understand from your book, by the late 1860s he was hiring only African-Americans for this type of service. Why was that?

KORNWEIBEL: Well, he saw that there was a large pool of former slaves who would be looking for jobs, looking for work, perhaps an alternative to agriculture. But he also had a very clear racial conception. He knew that most Americans, even most middle class, upper middle class Americans, didn’t have personal servants in their homes. The wealthy did, so the wealthy had an experience of being served by a liveried black waiter or butler, something like that. But to staff the Pullman cars with like workers in uniform and properly humble and all of that, that was something that the middle class had never experienced and now they could experience it for two days, three days, four days on a – depending on the length of the journey. And so part of the appeal to traveling on sleeping cars was to, in a sense, get out of your own class and into a higher class experience.

CAVANAUGH: So for African-Americans, this was an opportunity but at the same time it was also sort of being stereotyped as the servant class and having to take a lot of abuse.

KORNWEIBEL: Including the fact that many passengers didn’t bother to learn their personal names and addressed them as George. George was the term which was really an epithet for many porters.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s take another call. We are taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Or if you’d like to go online, post your comment at Kelvin is calling us from San Diego. Good morning, Kelvin. Welcome to These Days.

KELVIN (Caller, San Diego): How’re you doing?

CAVANAUGH: Just great, thank you.

KELVIN: Yes, I wanted to say to the professor that I really appreciate the work that he’s done here with this book. It sounds like something I’d really enjoy. My family, my grandfather was a lineman. He repaired tracks. Several of my uncles worked in I guess what they called the roundhouse, where, you know, they would change the direction of the engines?


KELVIN: And one of my uncles presently is an engineer on the Kansas City Southern Line. He makes the trip from Shreveport, Louisiana down to Baton Rouge. And one last connection I share with the professor, I graduated from Prairie View A&M…


KELVIN: …and I’m really glad to hear that you taught there and, you know, it’s just wonderful seeing that you’ve done this work.

KORNWEIBEL: When did you graduate from Prairie View?

KELVIN: I graduated in 1992.

KORNWEIBEL: Oh, well, that was several decades after my time there. Kelvin…

KELVIN: Yeah, I thought that, you know, and it’s funny because I really got into history when I went back to Prairie View. I – I’m a retired naval officer just so you know. I enlisted, moved out here to San Diego from Louisiana, went on to get my commission, and I went back to Prairie View and was part of their NROTC unit.


CAVANAUGH: Kelvin, thank you so much for your call. I really appreciate it. You know, the African-American railroad worker that Kelvin was talking about, in all aspects, ended up really infused in American culture, in art, in music. You have some examples in your book. Share them with us.

KORNWEIBEL: Well, let’s start with music. Many of the spirituals that developed during the slavery era began to adopt the imagery of railroads as a means of escape, as hopeful. At the same time, railroads also took the imagery of taking unrepentant people straight to hell. So railroads could take you on that celestial journey safely or it could take you without stops and just picking up more and more passengers straight down to hell. So the spirituals. Then the work songs. The slaves had sung many, many work songs, giving rhythm to their work, helping to break the tedium, and railroad workers simply carried that tradition over, making new songs in the process.

CAVANAUGH: And you have some really lovely art reproductions in this book about how the image of, mainly the African-American porter shows up in a lot of artworks especially during the New Deal and the Depression. You show a lot of those images.

KORNWEIBEL: There’s some beautiful, beautiful paintings by some of the most important black artists. These are not peripheral artists but important black artists like John Biggers, like Jacob Lawrence. And the interesting thing is that the figures who are human figures who are portrayed in these paintings are not the Pullman porters, they are not the red caps, in other words, they are not figures who were familiar to whites, predominantly, but they were the figures who would’ve been unfamiliar, unseen by most whites. They were track workers, they were manual laborers. So I think it’s very significant that the black artists recognized that the real core of the railroading experience was not the – those who served whites. The real core were those who kept the railroad going.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s take another call. Rosalyn is calling us from Point Loma. Good morning, Rosalyn. Welcome to These Days.

ROSALYN (Caller, Point Loma): Thank you, it’s Rosalyn.


ROSALYN: I very much appreciate your guest. I wanted to ask a couple of questions specifically about railroading in Southern California and the African-American presence here. My husband was an – Well, he was a scholar of railroading around the country and was often approached by other scholars for information about blacks in railroading. So we were on the North County Line in Encinitas, the Coaster Line now when I first was told by my husband what your guest mentioned at the very start of the segment, that African-Americans had built, as slaves, much of the railroad infrastructure that’s in this country today. And it sort of surprised me because I, too, had not really thought about it. I’m sure that Dan had mentioned at various times in our lives but I just had never equated it. And I wondered if you had ever looked at western railroads, specifically California railroads, specifically Southern California railroads, and whether they were built by African-Americans in part, in whole, at all?

KORNWEIBEL: Well, it would’ve been very, very few. It would’ve been unusual because there were other exploitable labor sources much closer than tapping the distant south. So a lot of the lines in California and Arizona and New Mexico, there were Indian laborers from various tribal peoples. The Navajos particularly desired for their abilities, Hispanics as well. Railroad construction tended to go to despised populations and who was looked down upon or despised in a given area, they tended to get those jobs. Where there were Asians, Chinese up in the northwest, few blacks there as well because of the predominance of a group that could be well exploited.

CAVANAUGH: I want to ask you, Ted, how – We’ve already talked about this dichotomy where the railroads gave African-Americans a lot of opportunities they wouldn’t have in other places but they sort of had to pay for them by being servants and not being respected. I’m wondering, how did the railroads influence civil rights, the civil rights movement?

KORNWEIBEL: Well, the earliest civil rights groups were black railroad unions or attempts by blacks to form their own unions and they were, of course, looking for improvements in job conditions but that was never the totality of it, that all of these early black organizations were focused on development of entire black communities. Even the social organizations that black railroaders founded, and there’s a rich history of associational activity: athletics, literature, community travel. Civil rights was never far from the surface of that, that as they got together as railroaders to strengthen their communities. Why were they strengthening their communities? So as to better fight against racism and prejudice.

CAVANAUGH: You know, it’s as you have it unfolded in our conversation and in this beautiful book, this is such a rich history, it’s a wonder that it hasn’t been gone into in this depth before. Is there something that lingers that is perhaps shameful about this whole experience with African-Americans on the railroads that people don’t – until this point haven’t really wanted to look at?

KORNWEIBEL: That’s certainly true. One of the chapters is on slavery and I published that chapter several years ago in the foremost journal in railroad history, and I got a storm of correspondence. They had to publish this in several pages in the next issue, some very laudatory but others saying this wasn’t really about railroading, this story about slaves working on the railroad. They weren’t real railroaders. Well, if the people who built the railroads weren’t real railroaders, if the firemen and the brakemen and the mechanics in the shops and the laborers out on the line weren’t real brakemen, then who is? So there’s been an historical amnesia and railroad history has been pretty white.

CAVANAUGH: Indeed it has until this point, until this book. I want to thank you so much for speaking with us today. Thank you so much.

KORNWEIBEL: You’re welcome. It’s been a pleasure.

CAVANAUGH: I want to let everyone know that Ted will be – Ted Kornweibel, the author of this book, will be at a book signing at Borders in Parkway Plaza in El Cajon on Wednesday, March 24th, that, of course, is tomorrow, and that’s between 4:00 and 6:00 p.m. The name of the book is…

KORNWEIBEL: Between six and eight, it’s…

CAVANAUGH: I’m sorry, it’s between 6:00 and 8:00 p.m. at Borders in Parkway Plaza in El Cajon. The name of the book is “Railroads in the African-American Experience,” and my guest has been Theodore Kornweibel, SDSU emeritus professor of African-American history. Thank you once again.


CAVANAUGH: And if you would like to comment about anything that you hear on KPBS These Days, go to and post your comment. You’ve been listening to These Days right here on KPBS.