top of page

10 Astonishing Facts About the Black Men and Women Responsible for America’s Railroad Systems

All Southern Railroads Built in the 1800s Were Built by Enslaved Africans The whole southern network of railroads built in the enslavement period in America was almost entirely constructed by enslaved Africans. Some railroads owned enslaved people while others rented them from their owners. They also hired free Blacks. All worked positions like brakemen and firemen, who either manually stopped trains 0r stocked fire for energy.

Black Women Were Also Involved in Railroad Construction Both women and men alike were pushed to work in the dangerous and brutal railroad building conditions. After construction on the tracks was complete, many still worked on the railroad in smaller roles. There was little difference in the abilities of Black women to work on the tracks. They were both expected to face treacherous conditions.

Black Men Risked Their Lives Working as Brakemen to Manually Stop Trains Trains originally had to physically be stopped by brakemen, who turned a wheel that engaged the brakes on individual rail cars. The wheel was located on top of the train car, and in the winter time, many brakemen fell between cars and were crushed to death. This continued until the air brake was invented.

John Henry Was a Real Person Historical research found that the John Henry ballad was based on two different real people. One was named John William Henry, a 20-year-old Black freeman born in New Jersey. He went to Virginia to clean up battlefields after the Civil War. Another was a John Henry who worked on and died at the Big Bend Tunnel at Chesapeake and Ohio Railway.

Just as There Were Pullman Porters, Pullman Maids Existed, Too George Pullman of the Pullman Company invented the overnight sleeping train car in the 1800s. He employed Black men as porters and also hired Black women as maids. Both porters and maids served white clients. Maids focused on white women’s needs and white women with children in particular.

Poor Working Conditions and Salaries Led to the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters Porters worked long hours with small salaries and no job security. Most of their income came from tips, and they had to pay for their uniforms, lodging and food. Advocate A. Philip Randolph founded the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in 1925 to combat this. In 1937, union rights to organize were legalized and Pullman reached a labor agreement with the BSCP.

John Henry Ballads Likely Originated as Songs for Railroad Workers in the 1870s Steel drivers and other rail workers would sing work songs as they laid tracks. The tunes later became more generalized as songs for chain gangs, prisons and other workers. Later versions saw it transformed into folk, blues and protest songs performed by singers like Leadbelly and Harry Belafonte.

The Railroad Boom in America Aided Escape Efforts of the Enslaved Samuel Ballton escaped his camp in April 1862 with a group of other enslaved Africans along lines cut to lay track to the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac Railroad. They trailed it north, dodging the road master who hired them by claiming they were there to work. The group later made it past Union lines and met the Sixth Wisconsin infantry. Other Black laborers escaped in similar ways.

Granville T. Woods Had Numerous Patents on Mechanisms to Aid Railroads Granville T. Woods was a businessman, patent holder and an electrical and mechanical inventor. Some of his patents included an electric transmission, air brake features that improved safety, and telegraphy. Woods taught himself electrical and mechanical engineering as he worked at railroad machine shops and steel mills.

Whites Pushed Blacks Out of Rail Jobs When Air Brakes Came in the Picture After George Westinghouse invented the automatic air brake and Woods made necessary safety improvements to them, the need for brakemen diminished. Along with automatic couplers, which attached rail cars on a train, these two features made rail jobs more attractive to whites. It caused Blacks to lose these jobs to white men in the early 20th century.


22 views0 comments
bottom of page