A Book Review: Railroads in the African American Experience: A Photographic Journey (2010) | The Socjournal

Carter G. Woodson, the father of Negro History Week and the author of The Mis-Education of the Negro (1933), wrote “Real education means to inspire people to live more abundantly, to learn to begin with life as they find it and make it better.”   Based on several social indices, the vast majority of Blacks are uninspired.  They have embraced an anti-intellectual impulse that is reflected by their dearth of knowledge of the arts, sciences, and the history of their ancestors before and during slavery. Despite the evolution and institutionalization of Negro History Week to Black History Month, far too many Blacks believe that African American history began with slavery. In spite of the Emancipation Proclamation and the success of the Civil Rights movement in rolling back the social and political boundaries of Jim Crow, far too many American adults—i.e., Whites and Blacks– and their children’s knowledge of the  African American experience is at best limited.  Dr. Theodore Kornweibel’s Railroads in the African American Experience: A Photographic Journey (2010) is the latest attempt to bridge this chasm and to re-introduce to Americans and the people of the world—via a pictorial history– an inspiring story of a disenfranchised people’s struggle to survive.

Chronologically, Kornweibel’s photographic journey of the African American experience covers the period from roughly the mid-1830s to the Civil Rights Act of 1965, and the establishment of AMTRAK.  Until the Civil Rights revolution, Kornweibel correctly remarked, “the only job open for blacks in most railroad offices was that of janitor.”  In a 1928 picture of a black employee and his white colleagues that worked for the Wabash Railway, while the white workers are gathered together, their black colleague –named Silas Barton– stands alone at the periphery of the picture.  The physical distance between Barton, whose occupation is listed as a janitor in the picture, and his white colleagues reflects, in the author’s words, “the racial and social gulf prevailing in the railroad workplace.  Kornweibel’s fascination with railroads and the African-American experience has been a central feature of his educational odyssey, since his days at Yale.

Dr. Kornweibel received his Ph.D. from Yale University in the 1960s and began teaching African-American History at San Diego State University in 1977.  Since this period, he has authored the following books: No Crystal Stair: Black Life and the “Messenger”, 1917-1928 (1976); “Seeing Red”: Federal Campaigns Against Black Militancy, 1919-1925 (1999); and “Investigating Everything”: Federal Efforts to Ensure Black Loyalty During World War I (2002). The common thread that connects his scholarship is its focus on the need to recognize the African American experiences as an integral and indispensable element of American History.   In the tradition of post colonial writers such as John Hope Franklin, LeRoy Bennett, Toni Morrison, Kornweibel has plumbed the African-American experience, previously neglected and marginalized by mainstream historians,  and has committed his life’s work to memorializing the story of a group that endured and survived oppression since their ancestors’ arrival in North America, beginning in 1619.  Railroads in the African American Experience: A Photographic Journey (from this point forward will be referred to as Railroads) celebrates the contributions of African Americans to our nation’s historical development and by doing so demonstrates the centrality of blacks in the spiritual and material fabric of America (Amott & Matthaei, 1992).

Railroads put forth a magnificent narrative of the African American experience.  Its use of pictures to capture the human spirit and its ability to overcome insurmountable odds is a powerful medium through which to illustrate the involvement of individual in the making of social history. It shows us the faces of our ancestors thereby demonstrating that history is more than the study of the past.  On the contrary, it demonstrates that history is more than the story about great individuals and events; it is more accurately defined as the scientific study of human societies and the ways in which our ancestors’ behaviors have shaped the cultural practices, social relations, and political institutions of past civilizations (Washburn, 1993).  The latter is illustrated in Railroads, which reintroduce us to the faces of the men and women—now mostly forgotten– who through the sweat of their brows erected the edifices that characterize our historical age. For example, Palmer Hayden’s printing of John Henry’s muscles and hammer versus the stream drill to determine which devices was superior in the construction of railroad tracks across our great nation.  As Kornweibel observed, the printing “symbolized African Americans’ transformation from agricultural to industrial workers, the strength of black working men, and Palmer’s belief, now vindicated, that his hero was not merely legendary but also a real historical figure.  The contest between the steam drill and raw muscle portraying John Henry and his ‘shaker’ gleefully besting the mechanical device and its beleaguered operator,” was donated by Miriam Hayden to the Museum of African American Art, located in Los Angeles, California.  Although John Henry was the victor in the contest, Palmer’s printing foreshadowed the large scale introduction of machines into the agricultural process, which resulted in many blacks in the South being pushed off the land in the 1950s and 1960s (Berlin, 2010). Many of these blacks would migrate to northern cities where today their grandchildren and their children are trapped in poverty and are fodder for our nation’s growing prison industrial complex (Meier & Rudwick, 1966; 1970).

Kornweibel’s pictorial journey humanizes our history by introducing us to J.L. Hooker, brakeman for the Durham and Southern Railway; Maggie Hudson, the B&O’s third porterette, who worked for 36 years alongside her male counterparts, earning the same wages as a result of her membership in the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters Union; Bessie Henderson, a maid who worked for the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad; and during World War II Marian Turner, Flossie Sawyer, Bessie Carrington, and Gladys Boyd who found work that was previously performed by black men staffing a Pennsylvania Railroad dining car in 1943. It also demonstrates that African Americans developed social and recreational institutions around their economic involvement in the railroad industry (Frazier, 1957; 1962).  This is evidenced by the Black Diamond Diers baseball team whose members worked for the Illinois Central Railroad, the gathering of the Association of colored Railway Trainmen, and the Great Northern Railway cooks and waiters balancing dishes and trays in the annual St. Paul (Minnesota) Winter Carnival.  The absence of African Americans in the white collar ranks of railroad workers reflects the fact that cultural, legal, and institutional barriers were erected to bar blacks from achieving equality with whites, regardless of the formers’ ambition, skills, or talents (Wilson, 1978).  The late Congresswoman, the Hon. Shirley Chisholm, reminds us that for a long time in our nation’s history it was not “fashionable” to be black.  An elaborate set of formal and informal practices were established to ensure that blacks knew their place.  She skillfully captured this reality when she wrote:

“It was during this period of the late 30’s and early 40’s, when Marian Anderson was denied the use of Washington’s Constitution Hall for a performance by the grand dames of the D.A.R….For a long time, I watched such white people closely, listened to them, and observed silently the treatment blacks were given in social and political situations.  It grew on me that we, black men especially, were expected to be subservient even in groups where ostensibly everyone was equal.  Blacks played by those rules; if a white man walked in, they came subtly to attention.  But I could see their fear, helplessness, and discomfort.  When I looked at the white people who were doing this, whether consciously or not, it made me angry because so many of them were baser, less intelligent, less talented than the people they were lording over. But the whites were in control.  We could do nothing about it.  We had no power.  That was the way society was.  I perceived that this was the way it was meant to be; things were organized to keep those who were on top up there.”

Shirley Chisholm’s remarks capture the unpleasant reality that for a long time African Americans were labeled problematic (Gould, 1993).  Their contributions to America’s development through the building of its railroad and canal networks were often marginalized.  When cotton was “king”, it was the labor of African Americans, as a critical element in the emerging world capitalist division of labor, which made it possible.  Railroads, by telling the stories of black firemen, brakemen, porters, and porterttes brings into the light what Kornweibel describes as unpleasant truths (Dailey, 2009). In the author’s words, it “challenges cherished stereotypes; confronts gender and racial biases; exposes hidden loyalties; and questions some railroad historians’ definitions of the field.”  In these regards, Kornweibel succeeds in eloquently proving that the history of railroads in the African American experience is a story worth telling and immortalizing in the form of his book.

While I found Kornweibel’s book very enjoyable to read and his photographs a wonderful depiction of the richness of the African American experiences in America, I never-the-less had the following two minor criticisms of his narrative. First, his narrative fails to provide an introduction explaining the author’s plan for the organization of the book.  The reader has to discover that each of the chapters of the book is a standalone essay devoted to different topics regarding the involvement of Blacks with the building and maintenance of America’s railroad system.  For example, chapter one, titled “Slavery and the Dawn of the Southern Railroading,” addresses the role that Blacks, and in particular slaves, played in the construction of the American railroad system.  Railroad construction was a dangerous occupation, and many blacks that were involved in this vocation were often inflicted with Malaria.  Chapter nine, titled “Not All Proper for Women,” delineates the involvement of women in this iconic American institution.   Many African American women performed a wide range of jobs, particularly during World War I and World War II, when the need for males to fight in the European theater resulted in a shortage of railroad workers.

Second, Dr. Kornweibel does not provide a framework for understanding the global forces responsible for integrating blacks who were politically and economically marginalized and largely members of the unskilled agricultural sector of the American 19th Century labor force (Ganz, 1995).  Specifically, African Americans in the American 19th Century labor market were unskilled laborers in the Capitalist international division of labor.   Culturally, they were defined as inferior and/or deficient, and poverty (and all its vicissitudes) was a constant feature of their existence.  In short, from slavery to post reconstruction to the Civil Rights movement and the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1965, Blacks have been characterized as deficient, and poverty and living on the margins have been constant features of our historiography in America.  Despite these minor shortcomings, Railroad is a book that should be placed on our nation’s high schools reading lists and in the libraries of every American interested in giving their children a balanced and honest portrayal of our nation’s history.

Amott, T., & Matthaei, J. (1992). Race, Gender, and Work: A Multi-Cultural Economic History of Women in the United States. Boston, MA: South End Press.

Berlin, I. (2010). The Making of African America: The Four Great Migrations. New York: Penguin Books.

Dailey, J. (2009). The Age of Jim Crow. New York: W.W. norton and Company .

Frazier, E. F. (1957; 1962). Black Bourgeoisie. New york: Collier Books.

Ganz, H. (1995). The War Against The Poor. New York: Basic Books.

Gould, S. (1993). American Polygeny and Craniometry before Darwin: Blacks and Indians as Separate and Inferior Species. In S. Harding, The Racial Economy of Science: Toward A Democratic Future (pp. 84-115). Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

James, C. (1963). The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution. New York: Vintage Book.

Meier, A., & Rudwick, E. (1966; 1970). From Plantation to Ghetto. New York: Hill and Wang.

Washburn, S. (1993). The Study of Race. In S. Harding, The Racial Economy of Science: Toward A Democratic Future (pp. 128-132). Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Wilson, W. J. (1978). The Declining Significance of Race: Blacks and Changing American Institutions. Chicago: The University of Chicago.

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