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African American Women and the Railroads

November 30, 2017 | Lily Anna Blouin, Mae Gilliland Wright, PhD, and Kaopua Sutton

The NRRHoF is creating a series of blog posts during the month of November titled “Take This Hammer: Stories of African American Railroaders.” Our posts will be part of a year-long worldwide celebration of the opening of the

Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture called Lift Every Voice.

In the years that immediately followed the Civil War, 49.5% of African American women were in the workforce. Although this number might not seem shocking by today’s standards (as of 2010, 58.6% of women in the U.S. were labor force participants[1]), at the time only 16.5% of white women were in the U.S. work force.[2] As William Harris observes, “The harsh requirements of slavery which had forced black women—and children—to work had removed the stigma of labor. When faced with the economic realities of making a living, black women found little difficulty in going to work.”[3]


Aside from the work of African American women on southern railroads, rail opportunities for African American women were scarce. The exception would have been for a small number of car cleaners, crossing guards and station cleaners and the earliest Pullman maids.[4]

An African American woman's application to The Pullman Company.

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Wartime production during the First World War required an enormous labor force. African American women made significance gains in employment during this time. Along with the garment industry and munitions factories, African American women found the best wages when working for the railroads.[5]


In an interview with Helen Ross, an African American freight house worker for the Santa Fe railroad in 1918, Ross describes why she chose to work with the railroads:


“All the colored women like this work and want to keep it. We are making more money at this than any work we can get, and we do not have to work as hard as at housework which requires us to be on duty from six o’clock in the morning until nine or ten at night, with might little time off and at very poor wages....What the colored women need is an opportunity to make money. As it is, they have to take what employment they can get, live in old tumbled down houses or resort to street walking, and I think a woman ought to think more of her blood than to do that. What occupation is open to us where we can make really good wages? We are not employed as clerks, we cannot all be school teachers, and so we cannot see any use in working our parents to death to get educated. Of course we should like easier work than this if it were opened to us, but this pays well and is no harder than other work open to us. With three dollars a day, we can buy bonds..., we can dress decently, and not be tempted to find our living on the streets..."[6]


Women were systematically replaced by returning soldiers as the war ended, however. The Great Depression of 1929 further frustrated attempts to join the workforce as massive layoffs and company shutdowns made employment more competitive. Railroad employment was down 44 percent by 1933.[7]


The Second World War saw an even greater strain on the industrial workforce—in just one year, 7,200 men left Southern Pacific to join the military effort. Once again, women were called upon to lend their labor to the war effort. By 1943, the number of women in the railroad industry climbed beyond 100,000, accounting for roughly 7.5 percent of all railroad employees.[8] Approximately one third of them were African American women.[9] However, in the years between the First and Second World Wars, African Americans did not see any major advancements in racial equality.


Executive Order 8802 had prohibited discrimination based on race in the national defense industry, but discrimination still occurred. African American women still found themselves in the same unskilled and unseen positions, working as car cleaners, sweepers, and elevator operators. They had little to no opportunity to work in clerical or mechanical positions.


The largest employer of African Americans at the time was the Pennsylvania Railroad, which employed approximately 17,951 African Americans in 1943. One in every four African Americans working at the Pennsylvania Railroad was a woman, the majority of whom worked as coach cleaners and shop laborers.[10] A few African American women worked in more unique positions, such as freight truckers and pipefitters.


While white women were trained to work in skilled positions, African American women were given manual position. African American women were more often seen along the tracks, working as section “men.” In Detroit, an African American women was hired as a helper to a New York Central passenger-car generator mechanic—by far an exception to the norm.[11] Some African American women worked in skilled trade labor by rivet catching in the railroad car repairs shops. Rebecca Smith described her dangerous experience as a rivet catcher in the Second World War explaining that she had to “catch those red-hot rivets in a cup…Your nerves had to be awful good.” [12] 

African American Women track gang on the B&O. Notice their foreman was a man. Pictured from left to right: George Proctor, Marcella Lockhart, Ida Jackson, twin sisters Catherine Jackson & Lucille Gray, Mildred Johnson & her mother Grace Johnson, sisters in law Eleanor Naylor & Mary Naylor, Clarice Cook

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By 1953, of the 12,622 African American workers on the Pennsylvania payroll, only 620 of them were female. [13] The 1950s and 60s saw a general drop in railroad employment due to competition with the automobile and the rapidly growing jetliner industry.


The 1960s saw the death of luxury passenger car travel in America, but the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a watershed moment in the history of racial equality in America.  The prohibition of job discrimination on the basis of race provided for more meaningful employment opportunities for African Americans. It was “no longer a novelty,” as Kornweibel puts it, to see African American women Engineers, brakemen, switchmen, and conductors.[14]


Racial diversity in the railroad industry has progressed since the 70s, when a few African American women broke the mold for the women that followed—including Edwina Justus (read more here) and Vallorie O’Neil (read more here).


Today, 20 percent of all female railroad officials and management are African American. Kornweibel notes that women as a whole, however, still only represent 11% of all workers in those positions.[15]


In an effort to preserve the stories of all railroaders—and especially those who are often forgotten—the National Railroad Hall of Fame will launch “Spirit of the Railroaders” in 2018. Watch our blog for information on how you can share your story or a story about someone that you admire.  



Sources and additional information:

[1] United States Department of Labor. Accessed November 2017.


[2] Harris, William H. “The Harder We Run: Black Workers since the Civil War.” New York, Oxford University Press: 1982. Pages 22-24.


[3] Harris. Page 23.


[4] Kornweibel, Theodore, Jr. “Railroads in the African American Experience.” Baltimore The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010. Page 213.


[5] Kornweibel, Page 218.


[6] Quoted in Maurine Weiner Greenwald,Women, War, and Work: The Impact of WW I on Women Workers in the United States(Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1980) from interview by Helen Ross, Freight House, Santa Fe RR, Topeka, KS, 28 October 1918: 27 File 55, Women’s Service Section, RG 14, National Archives, Washington, DC. Accessed November 27, 2017.


[7] Kornweibel. Page 229.


[8] Goldmark, Pauline. “Women in the Railroad World.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 86 (1919). Page 214.


[9] Kornweibel. Page 224.


[10] Kornweibel. Page 224.


[11] Kornweibel. Page 226.


[12] Kornweibel. Page 226.


[13] Kornweibel. Page 229.


[14] Kornweibel. Page 229.


[15] Kornweibel. Page 229.

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