Friday, July 10, 2020

A Different View: Windows Into Black History on the Railroad
By Makea King
Two African American men work on railroad construction while a White man watches. The image was taken in the early 1860s during the building of Civil War railway construction.1

You’re never too old to learn something new, right? I was in elementary school when I learned about Chinese immigrants building the Transcontinental Railroad. It went right along with the classroom lesson that revolved around the California Gold Rush and the promise of a bright, new country emerging in the West. After learning about Chinese immigrants working on the Transcontinental Railroad, I assumed that that was the end of the story. The immigrants built the railroad and connected the two coasts and everyone lived happily ever after. This is generally the point in the story when the narrator steps in to do a voiceover to let you know that actually, everyone did not live happily ever after.

In learning this lesson, I inadvertently failed to learn another lesson. I was 36 years old when I learned that enslaved Blacks were forced to lay the entirety of the southern railroad system.1 The railroad companies would either have their own enslaved workers for the railroad or they would lease them from nearby plantations. During the Civil War, the enslaved who could escape to the Union army would act as spies and offer counterintelligence on Confederate railroad locations and army camps. This would allow Union troops to sabotage rail ties and launch sneak attacks2. Who wouldn’t want to learn about this during history class? However, despite this enormous contribution to the Union army’s victory, most Union commanders commonly referred to the self-emancipated Blacks as “contraband”, which diminished their value and importance.
A group of railroad construction workers is gathered around railroad tracks on construction site in Virginia.2

 After the end of the Civil War and the subsequent Emancipation Proclamation declaration, the jobs available for the formerly enslaved often meant staying on the plantations and farms, working as sharecroppers. Those who sought to move on beyond that lifestyle gained employment with various railroad companies as brakemen, porters, maids, and cooks. Formerly enslaved women and men gained steady wages by working with railroad companies, however, there were limited avenues of promotion available to them. In the late 19th century, George Pullman established the Pullman Company, which operated a line of train sleeper cars, staffed by Pullman Porters and Maids. These employees served the White middle-class train passengers and provided them a sense of luxury while traveling via rail. Pullman Porters cooked their food, made their drinks, cleaned, and prepared their sleeping quarters, while the Pullman Maids watched the children, bathed, dressed, and even styled the hair of the women riding the train.3

A train passenger sits in a booth across from an African American woman employed as a Pullman Maid. The passenger seems to be getting her nails done. This was among the few beauty services Pullman Maids provided to train car passengers.3

While the promise of a stable job and consistent wage drew many to working on the railroads, many formerly enslaved Blacks were simply eager to enjoy the freedom of train travel. However, despite the end of the Civil War and the fall of the Confederacy, Black people were still forced to walk a narrow line in American society. In 1866, a man named Aaron Bradley simply wanted to travel on the B&O Railroad. Bradley believed that his ticket allowed him to sit wherever he desired, yet he was quickly escorted out of the passenger car that held only White passengers to a train car with only Black passengers. Bradley argued that his ticket did not specify which train car he could ride in, and thus afforded him a seat wherever he deemed fit. Bradley would later sue the B&O Railroad for $100, but he would ultimately lose, despite the legitimacy of his case and his occupation as a lawyer.4 

Throughout the Jim Crow Era and the brief period of Reconstruction, Black Baltimorians used the Civil Rights Act of 1866 to push forward new civil liberties for emancipated Blacks. The Mutual United Brotherhood of Liberty, established in 1885 by Pastor Harvey Johnson and others working within the church ministry, worked to elevate the livelihood of Blacks in Maryland and the United States as a whole. With the B&O Railroad in their figurative backyard, the MUBL was able to challenge segregation laws in transportation, education, and the government.5

Well after the Civil War, Black women joined White women as railroad workers to replace their male counterparts as World War I and World War II reshaped the globe.6 Although many women went back to their households after the wars ended, many did not. The spark of independence was not easily diminished and the learned skills and trades made available at railroad companies proved to be an avenue that allowed women to earn their own wages. 
Three African American women clean a locomotive. Left to right: Florence Rancher, Ann Rancher, and Ila Young.4

The land that the B&O Railroad occupies is rich with the stories, collective histories, and hopes and inspirations of the many generations who have come before us. The fortitude of mind that the self-emancipated enslaved had in order to escape and go on to work with the Union army to secure their freedom is directly tied to the cultural significance of railroads and their place in Black history. It is no coincidence that the name for the network of abolitionists that helped the enslaved escape is called the Underground Railroad. Regardless of it being underground, or surface level, the railroad has always been a symbol of freedom and a path to opportunity.

Four African American men are pictured in cook’s uniforms in a train kitchen car. Obtaining employment on a train as a cook was viewed as a steady and reliable form of employment.5

About the Author: Makea King is an experienced marketing and communications professional, currently working in higher education. She is completing her internship at the B&O Railroad Museum working on an oral history collection of African Americans and the railroad system. She is set to graduate with her MLIS degree at the conclusion of the Fall 2020 semester. 


1: Cavanaugh, Maureen, and Pat Finn. “The African-American Railroad Experience.” KPBS Public Media, KPBS, 23 Mar. 2010,

 2: Blouin, Lily Anna. “The Civil War and African American Railroaders: Part 1 of 2.” Nrrhof, Railroad History | National Railroad Hall of Fame | Galesburg, 12 Nov. 2018,

3: “Pullman Porter.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 14 Mar. 2020,

4:“African Americans Struggle to Define Freedom on the Border.” A Brotherhood of Liberty: Black Reconstruction and Its Legacies in Baltimore, 1865-1920, by Dennis Patrick Halpin, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019, pp. 18–19.

5: “Rev. Dr. Harvey Johnson: the Preacher & 19th Century Activism.” Black Baltimore 1870-1920, Harvey Johnson, Maryland State Archives, Maryland State Archives, 3 Feb. 1998,

6: Lily Anna Blouin, Mae Gilliland Wright. “African American Women and the Railroads.” Nrrhof, Railroad History | National Railroad Hall of Fame | Galesburg, 30 Nov. 2017,


Image References


1: United States Army. Military Railway Service, Russell, A. J., photographer. (ca. 1862) Two Railroad Construction Workers Hammer Track as Third Construction Worker Watches. United States, ca. 1862. [or 1863] [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress,

2: United States Army. Military Railway Service, Russell, A. J., photographer. (ca. 1862) Railroad Construction Workers. United States, ca. 1862. [or 1863] [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress,

3: Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, Public Relations Department. (ca. 1925). P1. Pullman maid serving white passenger on the B&O Railroad's Capitol Limited Line. General Photograph Collection, Hays T. Watkins Research Library, B&O Railroad Museum.

4: Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, Public Relations Department. (1940). P1. African American women work crew cleans locomotive in Ivorydale, Ohio. Left to right: Florence Rancher, Ann Rancher, and Ila Young. General Photograph Collection, Hays T. Watkins Research Library, B&O Railroad Museum. 

5: Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, Public Relations Department. (ca. 1930). P1. African American cooks as part of a dining services crew. General Photograph Collection, Hays T. Wakins Research Library, B&O Railroad Museum. 


Thursday, March 5, 2020

Couple Who Met on B&O Train in 1955 Celebrate 60th Anniversary in Roundhouse

 The personal stories woven throughout the history of the B&O serve to remind us all of what railroading can represent at its very best – bringing people together. One such story is that of Kathleen and William Schrodel, who celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary right here at the museum last month. The Schrodels’ choice of venue, apart from providing a beautiful historical backdrop to an affair that drew family and friends from all over the country, also symbolized the origin of a love and partnership that spans over six decades and counting. For it was almost 65 years ago that William and Kathy met aboard a B&O train from Frederick to Baltimore.

When William was 15 and Kathleen 13, they joined 735 other children and adults on a joint adventure between the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts across the state of Maryland. The pair’s first interaction can certainly be described as sweet, though perhaps not in the way one might think. “He threw a Hershey bar at me to get my attention” Kathy exclaims. She goes on to add that she still possesses the wrapper, crediting this to the fact that she “thought he was pretty special.”

When asked if they remember much of that fateful train ride apart from meeting one another, Bill is quick to offer “I remember the Roundhouse.” Kathleen later confesses that she “always thought it would be a nice idea to have an anniversary party in the Roundhouse” and goes on to add that the evening was “absolutely magical.” There is a staggering sense of place known to all who enter “Baldwin’s Cathedral,” as the Roundhouse is sometimes called. Beyond its dazzling architecture and dizzying heights, beyond its status as one of Baltimore’s most significant historical sites, the Roundhouse remains for so many a towering landmark in the realm of memory; as monumental in the scope of personal histories as it is in that of American history. Take for example the Schrodels: jetsetters who’ve visited every state in the U.S.A and taken train rides in nations all over the world. Of all the places they’ve been together, this pair of adventurers chose to celebrate the anniversary of their marriage here at the B&O.

Nearly 65 years ago, two kids from Frederick boarded a B&O train for a journey that would irreversibly alter the course of both their lives. They’ve taken many journeys together since, and will surely take many more. But it seems that no matter where they travel, the winding railways of life will always lead William and Kathleen Schrodel back to the B&O, where the story of their love began.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Volunteer Spotlight: John Geist

When I ask John Geist, a 14-year B&O volunteer originally from Lancaster, PA, if he would mind being the subject of the latest Volunteer Spotlight, I am met with same the soft-spoken humility that makes John such a pleasure to work with each week. Without much ado, John gives me permission to interview him, and we settle into what we at the B&O have come to call the Fishbowl: a small research area between our offices and the archives where John volunteers every Wednesday. John speaks gently, but not timidly, as he has in every conversation I’ve ever had with him. John isn’t a timid man, but rather one whose thoughts are carefully distilled, whose words are clear and precise, and whose temperament is mild and disarming.
John is the first to admit that he had no prior connection to the railroad; he holds a master’s degree in social work from the University of Pittsburgh and his career was spent largely as an association executive for various human services agencies. In areas such as health, education, and child safety, John worked to help administer services and resources to the people who needed them. This is why John’s particular interest is in the human aspect of the railroad’s history. He explains that railroading was the first American industry to provide a social safety net for its employees, and furthermore, that the B&O was the very first railroad to do so with the inception of its Relief Department in the late 19th century. My discussion with John on this topic further affirms what I’ve already begun to realize in my time at the B&O: there is an aspect of the railroad’s history for everyone. The B&O Railroad represents a cross-section of society, wherein social historians like John are just as essential as those who can, say, describe in painstaking detail the mechanical ins-and-outs of a steam engine. This isn’t just about history either – John’s favorite part of volunteering at the B&O is “the camaraderie with the other volunteers and working with the staff,” and you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone, staff or volunteer, who would disagree. John’s words and his wisdom serve as powerful reminders of what has always made the B&O so special. From the workers who built the railroad, to the tireless volunteers like John Geist who devote their time to the careful maintenance of its legacy, the B&O has always been about people, their lives, their work, and perhaps most importantly, their stories.

For volunteer opportunities, visit:

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Moving Troops in World War II

At the start of World War II, the railroads were still king of the castle in the transportation game. Airplanes were around but no major airlines existed to move passengers. Most planes were still only single or double seated with only a few larger aircraft. The country would have to rely on the railroads to help them win the war. They handled 90% of domestic military supply and 97% of domestic troop movements during the war years which totals about one million troops a month. Every possible car was pressed into service because of rationing only limited numbers of new cars were built.
What new cars were built were designed and authorized by the Defense Plant Corporation run by the U.S. Government. The DPC authorized the Pullman Car Company to build 2,500 sleeper cars for use on troop trains. Though the cars were owned by the government, they were operated by Pullman which insisted that Pullman porters were placed on every car. Another 400 kitchen cars were also built to feed the troops on the trains.
The Pullman Troop Sleeper car in our collection is numbered 7437 and was built in May 1944. After the war, most of the cars were sold as surplus. 7437 was purchased by the Western Maryland Railway and converted for use on their wreck train in Elkins, West Virginia. It was retired in 1988 when it was donated to the museum. In 1995 it was restored to its original exterior colors and lettering and the interior was partially restored to show what it looked like while in service. The exterior was refinished again in 2004 and a display on the B&O during World War II was added.
The 7437 is on display and open every day at the museum. Join us November 12 and 13 for our observance of Veterans Day when we will have many displays and programs about World War II. There will be Jeeps, displays on the railroad during the war, and equipment displays about Army, Marine, and Coast Guard.

Fearless Mentor Williams

Today’s B&O Employee is Fearless Mentor Williams
Born April 20, 1882, his father named him Fearless because he looked him straight in the eyes right after he was born and his father announced that he was “fearless” and that should be his name. His middle name “Mentor” means, “a wise and trusted counselor.” The name did serve this honorable man well. He began has long career with the B&O as a floor porter in the executive office building on September 10, 1906 rising through the ranks to become Porter in Service of the President on June 6, 1916. He was a leader in Baltimore’s African-American community and a trustee of Provident Hospital. Fearless was an industrious man, in his “spare” time he was a president of a real estate company, secretary of a building and loan association and an insurance agent. He was also the Uncle to Thurgood Marshall, first African American Supreme Court Justice. He retired on June 15, 1952 with nearly 46 years of service in with the B&O.