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Railroads in the African American Experience: A

A 2010 illustrated non-fiction book by Theodore Kornweibel Jr.

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Fabulous Contribution to American History

  • Nov 4, 2009
This hefty book - over 500 oversize pages - is a fascinating compendium of information about the railroad business and how it affected the lives of African Americans. By extension, it is a wonderful window on American history, as the building of railroad lines that criss-crossed the US opened up the possibility of easy travel for all Americans.

What I didn't realize before reading this book is that many miles of railroad tracks were actually built by slaves. In the South, slaves were rented to railroad companies during periods when they were not needed for agricultural work. They did the heavy labor of clearing land and laying railroad tracks. Later, after Emancipation, chain gangs were used, with prisoners forced to work under such brutal conditions that many died.

Author Kornweibel takes the reader through the early days of railroading and into the 20th century era of Pullman sleeper cars, elegant dining cars, and incredible personal service from all-black porters, maids, cooks, waiters, and Red Caps. Mostly, these hard-working employees served white patrons, carrying their bags, cooking their meals, shining their shoes and performing whatever services were requested. Behind the scenes, blacks worked as firemen, brakemen and many jobs that no longer exist. I learned a great deal about railroad work from this well-researched book.

Although the book is subtitled "A Photographic Journey" and indeed features an amazing collection of wonderful photographs, the text is just as valuable; it is extremely detailed, drawing information from many sources, including railroad company magazines and letters these companies received from their passengers and employees during the era of passenger travel. It is so meticulously researched that many stories of individual railroad workers include names and background information. The author's empathy with these people, who come alive in his narrative, is obvious.

But clearly Mr. Kornweibel did not write this book just to tell us stories about the railroad business. He uses this industry to illustrate the history of discrimination against African Americans, showing how it affected their employment in railroad jobs (confined to the jobs whites didn't want), their experience as passengers (made to ride in "Jim Crow" sections), and the paternalistic and often insulting attitude of their white employers. Railroads encouraged the idea that blacks were natural servants, who were well suited to work that involved serving others. They also printed cartoons and jokes in their company magazines that showed caricature portrayals of blacks. These things were all part of the cultural patterns of the first half of the 20th century.

One interesting historical note is the role of unions in denying blacks the chance for promotion. If an African American worked in a job that also employed whites, the union, which was usually hostile to black employment, tried to get them excluded from that job category. Blacks sometimes formed their own unions, but the railroad would only recognize one union, and that was the white union. Only when blacks had a monopoly on a job category (as with the Pullman porters) could they form a union that effectively represented them.

Many of the pictures and the text illustrate the inconvenience and extra expense of segregation, which dictated separate facilities for black and white, both in train stations and on the trains. As things began to change in the late 1950s and 1960s, federal rulings upheld the right of blacks to equal treatment with whites. Trains, which passed from segregated southern states to northern states, often would change policies as the train crossed boundaries. In some cases, blacks had to move from their seat or sleeping berth because the train had moved from a non-segregated to a segregated state. Trains used partitions in some cars to separate black and white and simply removed the partitions as the train entered northern states.

The most poignant part of this book for me was the discussion of the train as a metaphor for freedom. Consider the use of the term "underground railroad" for the system of helping slaves escape to the north. The author shows how the trains that passed through rural southern areas became for blacks, both before and after slavery, a symbol of going to a better place. For many, it was more than a symbol of escaping racism; it became the actual means of moving to the north. Whole villages of people moved together during the Great Migration of the World War I years, taking the trains north to jobs in Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland and other cities where workers were needed. These places were the Exodus to the Promised Land, and for passengers, who were "Bound for Glory," crossing the Ohio River was "crossing the Jordan." Many celebrated the crossing by singing hymns. The railroad was also a metaphor for religious belief, as Jesus became the Engineer, taking them to heaven. The author cites numerous poems, hymns and popular songs involving railroad imagery. Artists too portrayed the railroads in their pictures of African American experiences.

Today, racial segregation seems like an incredibly stupid idea, based on the notion that one race of people is superior to another. The very concept of race no longer holds much meaning, but there was a time when a definition of whether you were black or not was crucially important. Homer Plessy, who was the defendant in the Plessy v. Ferguson court case which established "separate but equal" was only one-eighth black - enough for him to be denied a seat on the train!

According to the author, to the southerner of the pre-Civil Rights era, it was unacceptable for a person classified as black to supervise a white person. This thinking extended even to baseball teams (railroad employees formed teams and leagues). Black teams had to play only other black teams to avoid the humiliation of a white team being beaten by a black team. The author continually stresses the demeaning quality of these practices for African Americans, but he also quotes many black railroad workers who remember their railroad service with pride. Many of the Pullman porters waited on celebrities and Presidents, and their recollections about huge tips from people like Bing Crosby make for entertaining reading.

This book will be of great value to scholars for years to come, but ordinary people who want to know more about the hidden history of the United States will also enjoy reading it. This is an incredible collection of important historical information you will not find anywhere else.

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Quick Tip by . July 01, 2010
My grandfather absolutely loves trains. i got him this book for fathers day and he hasn't put it down. And I can't get him to shut up! He has so many stories about the rail systems that run through and around the sleepy little town they live in. He can tell me all about the trains and when they were designed. This is a great book for collectors, train lovers and enthusiasts.
review by . December 05, 2009
An extremely important addition to the literature on the African-American experience in America.
Theodore Kornweibel Jr. has had a fascination with railroads all of this life.  While studying for his PhD in African-American Studies at Yale in the late 1960's Korneweibel worked as a volunteer gandy dancer (track maintainance worker) on a small tourist railroad in eastern Connecticut.  This experience sparked his lifelong interest in railroading.  Kornweibel went on to become a distinguished professor of African-American Studies at San Diego State University and is the author …
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Theresa Welsh ()
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I'm a book lover, book reviewer and part-time book seller. I'm also a writer and author, with a background in IT work in both the auto and medical industries. I retired from full-time work a year … more
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About this book


This captivating book takes readers on an illustrated tour of the black railroad experience from slavery to Amtrak. With almost 200 images -- many never before published -- Theodore Kornweibel, Jr., examines the significant contributions of African Americans to the building, maintenance, operation, and profitability of the American railway system.

The history of American railroads, Kornweibel makes clear, cannot be separated from African American history. For over a century, railroading provided the most important industrial occupation for blacks. Brakemen, firemen, porters, chefs, mechanics, laborers -- African Americans of both sexes have been essential to the daily operation and success of American railroads. The connections between railroads and African Americans extend well beyond employment. Civil rights protests beginning in the late 19th century challenged railroad segregation and job discrimination; the major waves of black migration to the North depended almost entirely on railroads; and railroad themes and imagery penetrated deep into black art, literature, drama, folklore, and music.

Kornweibel's visual presentation of this rich history brings to life the hundreds of thousands of blacks who toiled for decades on America's great rail system. Each chapter of text focuses on a different occupation or railroading experience, some peculiar to blacks. Together, the evocative images and the complementary essays supply a comprehensive and powerful survey of the...

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ISBN-10: 0801891620
ISBN-13: 978-0801891625
Author: Theodore Kornweibel Jr.
Genre: Business & Investing
Publisher: The Johns Hopkins University Press
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