African American Labor and the Railroad

We all know February is a big month for American history buffs since it commemorates both African American history as well as the lives of two of the most important Presidents of the U.S.  But how do we, as parents and teachers, bring that history to life for the children in our lives?  One way is through the railroad.  Not only do kids love trains (just ask any kid what kind of train Thomas is), but the railroad has also played a major role in both African American and Presidential history in the U.S.  Moreover model railroading, pioneered by companies like Lionel Trains, provides an exciting, tactile way to dramatize this history for kids.

The role of African Americans in the railroads began as early as the 1830s.  In the antebellum South, railroad owners employed slave labor for the notoriously back-breaking task of building the railroads.  As many as 20,000 enslaved African Americans helped build the railroads throughout the South.  In addition to general laborers, many were trained in crafts such as blacksmithing and carpentry – valuable skills that made them attractive to the railroad companies.  In fact, when railroad construction began in North Carolina in the 1850s, two-thirds of the employees below the rank of supervisor were African Americans, almost all of them slaves.

After the Civil War, the Pullman Palace Car Company introduced the sleeping car and hired African Americans as porters to staff them.  While the pay was substandard, working as a Porter was one of the best opportunities available for most African Americans at the time and allowed many to enjoy more middle class lifestyles.  In addition, it enabled extensive travel and sharing of ideas between communities.  Later, in 1925, A. Philip Randolph organized the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first labor union in the U.S. led by African Americans.

How can you use these stories to relate the larger issues of racial and ethnic discrimination to your kids?  Can they find any similar instances in contemporary society?

Pullman Porters





Lionel Trains


Photo courtesy of Lionel L.L.C. All rights reserved


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