Stories Lost: Slavery and the Railroads

November 6, 2017 | Mae Gilliland Wright, PhD

 

The NRRHoF is creating a series of blog posts during the month of November titled “Take This Hammer: Stories of African American Railroaders.” Our blogs 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.

"…nearly every rail line built east of the Mississippi River and south of the Mason-Dixon line before the Civil War was constructed or run at least partly by slaves.”[1]

As we begin our series of blog posts on the African American railroad experience, we look to the enslaved men, women and children of America’s South. Before the Civil War, railroads in the South were built almost entirely by African American slaves. The antebellum South built a grand total of 8,784 miles of track.[2]

 

If the tracks were laid out in a straight line, it would have been enough to span the width of the continental United States nearly 3 times… a staggering amount.

 

Because we often take railroads for granted, it is easy to forget the increased income and security that comes as a result of them. Although the Midwest (and particularly Illinois) saw a boom in railroad construction during the 1850s, the South was growing quickly, too—and demand for a robust rail infrastructure was high. Railroads lowered internal transportation costs for farmers and expanded commerce.[3] At times, the South even exceeded the number of tracks built in the North, even opening up new frontiers for cotton plantations.[4] Farmers could quickly and efficiently move goods from one city to another—a game changer for the entire nation.

 

Railroads also helped move soldiers in numbers that had never been possible. As tensions began to rise with the North, a solid rail infrastructure became even more important.

 

In the South, African American slaves were viewed as just another business transaction. Where we see human lives, slave owners saw a chance to increase their profits. And while other industries preferred to purchase slaves, railroad companies preferred to ‘rent’ them from owners. This allowed the railroads to move their resources easily around large geographic areas. As Joseph Kornweibel, Jr., notes in his book, Railroads in the African American Experience: A Photographic Journey, “…the slave economy was flexible and elastic, just what the often capital-strapped new railroads needed.”[5]

In 1860, nearly 15,000 African Americans were enslaved by railroad companies in the South.[6] The demand that the railroads created for slave labor meant that the cost of slave labor rose rapidly in the late-antebellum South.[7]

 

These slaves weren’t just grown men, either.

 

Men, women and children suffered unthinkable cruelty as the railroad system began to emerge in the southern states. In an interview with radio station KPBS, Kornweibel notes that this fact was the most shocking finding of his research. As a point of comparison, he says, “white women would never have been considered for any of those jobs.”[8]

Image Source: http://usslave.blogspot.com/2011/02/rail-networks-own-lines-built-with.html 

 

Slaves would have hauled timber, cut stone and blasted tunnels. If the slaves were skilled laborers, they would have been hired or rented to do stone masonry, carpentry and metalwork.[9] The slaves worked in incredibly difficult and dangerous conditions. Little regard was given to their wellbeing, and contractors would rather forego adequate housing for crude tents. From explosions to cholera to frostbite, owners who rented out slaves knew they might not get them back, which prompted them to take out insurance policies.[10] The slaves worked next to freemen who were paid—both black and white.[11]

 

Today, the stories of these earliest African American railroaders are preserved as numbers in ledgers—many of their personal stories lost in time. Very little information has survived—though Kornweibal, in the interview with KPBS, speaks about a young woman, Rose, whose horrific story offers a glance into what it might have been like to have one’s life contracted to a railroad company.

 

Rose had lived as a slave working in a domestic setting in the South. Her owner, unfortunately, saw an opportunity to rent her to the Charleston and Savannah Railroad just prior to the Civil War.

 

Rose was then sent hundreds of miles away from home—she would have had no one to protect her as the only female surrounded by enslaved black men and Irish railroad workers. “The only woman there, isolated, vulnerable… completely out of her element.” [12]

 

Conditions for these slaves only worsened with the advent of the Civil War… but for some, the knowledge they gained during this time would later prove essential during the ensuing battle between the Confederacy and the United States.

 

 

 

Citations and Further Reading:

[1] “Rail networks own lines built with slave labor.” USA Today. February 21, 2002. Source: http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/money/general/2002/02/21/slave-railroads.htm

 

[2] Kornweibel, Jr., Theodore. Railroads in the African American Experience: A Photographic Journey. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 2010. 11.

 

[3] Atack, Jeremy and Robert A. Margo. “The Impact of Access to Rail Transportation on Agricultural Improvement: The American Midwest As A Test Case, 1850-1860.” The Journal of Transport and Land Use, Volume 4, No. 2, Summer 2011. 5-6.

 

[4] Thomas, William G. “Been Workin’ on the Railroad.” The New York Times, February 10, 2012.

 

[5] Kornweibel, Jr., Theodore. Railroads in the African American Experience: A Photographic Journey. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 2010. 12.

 

[6] Kornweibel, Jr., Theodore. Railroads in the African American Experience: A Photographic Journey. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 2010. 11.

 

[7] Ewing, Bradley T., Mark Thronton and Mark A. Yanochik. “Railroad Construction and Antebellum Slave Prices.” Social Science Quarterly, Volume 84, Number 3, September 2003. Southwestern Social Science Association. 723.

 

[8] “The African-American Railroad Experience,” KPBS Interview by Maureen Cavanaugh and Pat Finn. Source: http://www.kpbs.org/news/2010/mar/23/african-american-railroad-experience/

 

[9] Thomas, William G. “Been Workin’ on the Railroad.” The New York Times, February 10, 2012.

 

[10] Kornweibel, Jr., Theodore. Railroads in the African American Experience: A Photographic Journey. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 2010. 14-15.

[11] “The African-American Railroad Experience,” KPBS Interview by Maureen Cavanaugh and Pat Finn. Source: http://www.kpbs.org/news/2010/mar/23/african-american-railroad-experience/

 

[12] “The African-American Railroad Experience,” KPBS Interview by Maureen Cavanaugh and Pat Finn. Source: http://www.kpbs.org/news/2010/mar/23/african-american-railroad-experience/