I am a BIG train fan. I recently took a cross country trip on the Amtrak to experience my homeland from the perspective of the railways. It was glorious and gave me time to think deeply about this aspect of the American story.
But how many of you know the Black side of train travel in the U.S.? Because today I’m going to help you draw some connections between passenger rail and the establishment of the Black Middle Class. Don’t worry, I brought pictures and links for you so let’s get it.
Let’s go back in time to that moment in our shared American history when approximately 4 million people were dropped into a hostile employment market with varying skill sets and no safety net, limited access to education and training and little to no housing assistance. This was the state that freedmen and women found themselves in as a result of the Emancipation Proclamation.
Let’s also be clear that many of the early railroad companies owned slaves and used them to build the tracks that carried all those trains. A great book for you to read that will relay this history is Railroads In The African American Experience (2010)
Now that we’ve set the stage so that you can see a large population of people seeking jobs with livable wages, some with trade and service skills but few who had ever experienced paid labor. So when George Pullman, in the years immediately following the American Civil War, extended the opportunity for then Negroes to work for a salary as Pullman Sleeping Car Porters many Black men and women seized the opportunity. I include women because oftentimes people fail to mention that women were also employed as maids and cooks when the Pullman cars were introduced in 1867.
There was a certain common sense logic to this move from a business standpoint. Many of the freedmen had “experience” providing all types of service to whites. They also knew English and how to receive instructions from many dialects. This was also a labor class that had very low expectations when it came to salary. The salaries, however, were not anywhere close to a livable wage which left the porters heavily reliant on tips from customers.
“Pullman Company demanded 400 hours a month or 11,000 miles – sometimes as much as 20 hours at a stretch — and paid ridiculously low wages (in 1926, an average of $810 per year — about $7,500 in today’s economy).” – Pullman Porters from Servitude to Civil Rights
It was about this time in the course of my human events that my grandfather,Willie Collier, was born in rural Georgia. As a young child his family left the South for the new jobs and resources of Chicagoland. Years later he would go to work in the steel mills of Northwest Indiana. And when he was old enough, my father went to work with the mills as well in between semesters of college.
And now, when I ride the rails I think about my progenitors and how their blood, sweat and labor went into the making and shaping of America’s infrastructure. When the Amtrak Texas Eagle pulls into Chicago Union Station with me in tow, I think about the men and women of my shared American experience who made it possible for me to travel the country in ways they rarely dreamed of for their descendants.
Our passenger rail services are both a part of our shared national heritage and a vital part of our shared national infrastructure. For many rural communities, the trains are a lifeline. The pandemic led to the reduction of long distance trains and we need to restore the daily service. I could quote you facts and figures about how riding trains is a good move for the environment. I could boggle your mind with percentages of regular, hard working people who rely on the train to take care of their families and earn their livings. Today, I’ve given you a little grounding in some of the Black side of U.S. Passenger Rail history.
In Part 2 I’ll introduce you to some of the key players who helped advance the fight for Black union representation.
If you’d like to get all of our long-distance trains back to running here’s the link that will guide you through the process of reaching out to your congressional representation.
If you want to make your voice heard by your elected officials you can do so quickly and easily by using the following link. We NEED affordable public transportation in the U.S. We need to promote travel between all of our communal that we can advance business opportunities and know one another as fellow countrymen and women. Ignorance is a dangerous thing and we MUST spend time with one another to avoid operating in ignorance towards one another.
Click Here to support the restoration of daily train service in the U.S. as part of our next relief bill. https://www.votervoice.net/mobile/NARPRAIL/Campaigns/79822/Respond?vvsn=BP_tPAY3ACOfTApSnsX7BBA
Marta C. Youngblood is the founder and creative engine behind TheWRITEaddiction creatives co-op founded in 2014 as a virtual community supporting writers from all over the United States of America. Marta’s passion drives her to support the success of creatives from all walks of life to honor their talent and share it with the world. She believes that working in our creative callings does not have to be synonymous with being a “starving artist” and helps creatives master the business skills and strategies they need to work in their gifts.