From the time the first tracks were laid in the early nineteenth century, the railroad has occupied a crucial place in America's historical imagination. Now, for the first time, Eric Arnesen gives us an untold piece of that vital American institution—the story of African Americans on the railroad.
African Americans have been a part of the railroad from its inception, but today they are largely remembered as Pullman porters and track layers. The real history is far richer, a tale of endless struggle, perseverance, and partial victory. In a sweeping narrative, Arnesen re-creates the heroic efforts by black locomotive firemen, brakemen, porters, dining car waiters, and redcaps to fight a pervasive system of racism and job discrimination fostered by their employers, white co-workers, and the unions that legally represented them even while barring them from membership.
Decades before the rise of the modern civil rights movement in the mid-1950s, black railroaders forged their own brand of civil rights activism, organizing their own associations, challenging white trade unions, and pursuing legal redress through state and federal courts. In recapturing black railroaders' voices, aspirations, and challenges, Arnesen helps to recast the history of black protest and American labor in the twentieth century.
In this superbly written monograph, Arnesen...shows how African American railroad workers combined civil rights and labor union activism in their struggles for racial equality in the workplace...Throughout, black locomotive firemen, porters, yardmen, and other railroaders speak eloquently about the work they performed and their confrontations with racist treatment...This history of the 'aristocrats' of the African American working class is highly recommended.
Arnesen provides a fascinating look at U.S. labor and commerce in the arena of the railroads, so much a part of romantic notions about the growth of the nation. The focus of the book is the troubled history of the railroads in the exploitation of black workers from slavery until the civil rights movement, with an insightful analysis of the broader racial integration brought about by labor activism.
[An] exhaustive and illuminating work of scholarship.
Arnesen tells a story that should be of interest to a variety of readers, including those who are avid students of this country's railroads. He knows his stuff, and furthermore, reminds us of how dependent American railroads were on the backbreaking labor of racial and ethnic groups whose civil and political status were precarious at best: Irish, Chinese, Mexicans and Italians, as well as African-Americans. But Arnesen's most powerful and provocative argument is that the nature of discrimination not only led black railroad workers to pursue the path of independent unionism, it also propelled them into the larger struggle for civil rights.
- 2001, Winner of the Wesley-Logan Prize
- 352 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
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