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. 


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