"Colored" (Black) Fireman and Engineers in the south

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"Colored" (Black) Fireman and Engineers in the south

  • This post is about a subject that I read about several years.

    I have read that railroads in the south used "colored" (black) fireman, but those fireman could not be promoted to engineers, even though some where better engineers than the white ones.

    I hope I have not offended anyone by this post as history is not always kind.

    Ed Burns

    Happily retired NP-BN-BNSF from Minneapolis. Yes, I was there as of M-Day in 1970.

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  • In his writings Lucius Beebe mentioned seeing mixed and freight trains in the South with all-black crews, however these were on obscure short lines, not what we'd call the Class Ones. 

    For that matter I doubt you'd have seen black engineers on the Class Ones up North in the old days either, athough I could be very wrong on that.

    And NP Eddie, I wouldn't worry about offending anyone, especially if you haven't set out to do so.  The past is what it was, and history is what it is, and all we can do is learn from it and try not to repeat the mistakes.

  • And I remember the first time as a youngster riding a sleeper in Canada on CP or CN and finding it was attended by a white porter.!

  • After my folks moved from Texas to Florida in 1959 my hangout became Tampa Union Station.  Both the Atlantic Coast Line and Seaboard Air Line employed black firemen.  One fine black man worked the Tampa-Port Tampa phosphate drags.  After the two railroads merged to become Seaboard Coast Line he was promoted to engineer.  My best friend had gone to work for Agrico Chemical Co. and had a warm reunion with him when he brought a train into the Agrico yard. one night in the 80s. 

    While I was employed on the Santa Fe in Dallas in the 70s I worked with a black engineer from NY City.  He could kick cars better than many of the veteran white boys could!  We worked together and were a great ebony and ivory team!  I retain many fond memories of those days. 

    As beautifully written as the Constitution of the United States is, the Freedom and Justice for All was written by slave owners.  It took a Civil War to undo some of the wrong and sadly problems still exist in the 21st Century despite the Dream of  the great Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the 60s.

    A Mexican locomotive engineer saved an entire town from total distruction by taking a train loaded with TNT out of the town and paid with his life.  Mexico celebrates Railroad Days in his honor each year.  Native Americans and Chinese have also contributed to the history of railroads in America as well.

    A Classic Trains special honoring all of these men and women is long overdue!

        

  • NY City did not hire blacks for subway service until at least the 70's.  I know of at least one black man (who told me there were others) who wanted to run for them but was denied thus moved away from the city so he..and they..could get jobs in railroading.  They did so and are great railroaders today.

    RIDEWITHMEHENRY will plan and escort railfan rides in and around the NY Metropolitan and Philadephia areas: no mode of transportation is untouched. Guaranteed railfan fun!

  • I've come across several references over the years of that being the case for many years in the South, that blacks could become fireman but never be promoted to engineer - much the same way blacks could be Pullman porters but not Pullman conductors, or be dining car waiters but not chief stewards. I don't know if it was much better in the North, but it probably wasn't as firmly set a policy as it was in the South.

    Stix
  • Actually discrimination was often more rampant in the north than it was in the south and I think the Unions (BLE&F and BRT) had a hand in this situation. I can speak for the Illinois Central in the early 1950's. The IC had black firemen and brakemen but no engineers or conductors on its southern divisions at that time. However up north on the Illinois and Iowa Divisions there was not a single black train or engine crewmen (engineers, firemen, conductors, brakemen and flagmen). Also motormen, conductors, brakemen and flagmen in the electrified Chicago commuter service were all whites. I am pretty sure the Unions extracted an unwritten agreement with the IC to keep it that way. I'd be interested to hear what others know about the situation on other roads in the north.

    Mark

  • About a year ago I watched a documentary on Philadelphia during World War Two.  Seems the Philly streetcar system wanted to hire black men to replace the white motormen who'd gone to war.  The motormans union was dead set against it and called a strike, shutting the system down.  As the streetcars were essential to getting workers to the various war production sites in the area the Army was called in and soldiers ran the cars.  A pretty ugly story.

    You know, the South gets slammed a lot for discrimination and bigotry, but the folks up North weren't exactly blameless either.  I remember a great Bill Mauldin political cartoon from the 60's showing a "Bull Connor"  German shepard dog with some shredded clothing hanging out of his mouth talking with a French poodle.  The poodle says, "Well, up North we just nibble 'em to death."

  • KCSfan

    Actually discrimination was often more rampant in the north than it was in the south and I think the Unions (BLE&F and BRT) had a hand in this situation. I can speak for the Illinois Central in the early 1950's. The IC had black firemen and brakemen but no engineers or conductors on its southern divisions at that time. However up north on the Illinois and Iowa Divisions there was not a single black train or engine crewmen (engineers, firemen, conductors, brakemen and flagmen). Also motormen, conductors, brakemen and flagmen in the electrified Chicago commuter service were all whites. I am pretty sure the Unions extracted an unwritten agreement with the IC to keep it that way. I'd be interested to hear what others know about the situation on other roads in the north.

    Mark

    I have a 1929 Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen/CRI&P "Rules and Rates of Pay" book.  There is in one section, I think dealing with applications to take exams for promotion to Conductor, where it says something like, "preference will be given to the senior white trainmen making application."

    Jeff 

  • I don't think I'd go so far as to say discrimination was MORE rampant in the North than the South, but in some ways the 'cultural discrimination' may have just as bad. In the North it was more cultural, in the South it was often enforced by statute and regulation. For example, the 1950's-60's desegregation of public schools in the South, and all the fighting that created, seemed very odd to my parents, both of whom had grown up in Minneapolis going to school with black kids in the 1920's and '30's.

    Stix
  • Perhaps ironic is a better term, in view of the north prevailing over the south in a war about slavery and bigotry.  It is the same up here in the hallowed halls of Canada.  Bigotry is every bit as rampant and well-established as it is in any culture, nation, or population.  People of most any persuasion, education, socio-economic status, skill set, moral philosophy, gender identity, and sexual proclivity harbour resentment and bias.   It shows in their actions if not their words.

    Crandell

  • wjstix

    I don't think I'd go so far as to say discrimination was MORE rampant in the North than the South, but in some ways the 'cultural discrimination' may have just as bad. In the North it was more cultural, in the South it was often enforced by statute and regulation. For example, the 1950's-60's desegregation of public schools in the South, and all the fighting that created, seemed very odd to my parents, both of whom had grown up in Minneapolis going to school with black kids in the 1920's and '30's.

    'Actually discrimination was often more rampant in the north than it was in the south." You'll notice that I used the word "often". Yes there was de jure segregation in the south but de facto segregation existed in lots of places in the north. It was more prevalent in cities which had seen a large influx of blacks in the 30's and 40's , e.g. Chicago and Detroit. Blacks were viewed as competetiors for jobs and whites fled the inner cities for the suburbs as more and more blacks moved in. I lived the first 16 years of my life in an all white suburb of Chicago. Any blacks who happened to drive through after dark would be stopped by the police and escorted out of town. Needless to say no realtor would show a house to a black potential buyer or renter in that town. Unless you lived through them things like that are hard to believe today when we have come to respect an individual's civil rights.

     

  • Well that's true, I've heard blacks who came north in years back say they preferred the south because at least there were signs there saying "white only" etc. so they knew where they weren't welcome. In the north, they often had to find out 'the hard way'.

    One thought about the original post...as unfair as it was that blacks could only be firemen and not engineers, or Pullman porters but not conductors etc., it's inspiring to note that these men were able to use these jobs to carve out a better future for themselves and their families. From what I've read, there was a generation of black writers, teachers, etc. whose fathers or grandfathers did hard work on the railroad to enable them to get a good education in a stable family environment.

    Stix
  • wjstix

    One thought about the original post...as unfair as it was that blacks could only be firemen and not engineers, or Pullman porters but not conductors etc., it's inspiring to note that these men were able to use these jobs to carve out a better future for themselves and their families. From what I've read, there was a generation of black writers, teachers, etc. whose fathers or grandfathers did hard work on the railroad to enable them to get a good education in a stable family environment.

     

    Absolutely right. Despite the limited upward mobility, Pullman porter, brakeman and fireman were considered to be prestigious occupations for blacks.  In the south those who held these jobs were respected members of what was, at the time, a fairly small black "middle class".

    One more comment about the de facto situation in the north. From 1945-'59 (with time out for the Korean War) I commuted daily into Chicago on the Illinois Central, from 1959-'62 on the Burlington and from 1962-'65 on the Erie-Lackawanna in New Jersey. On the commuter trains of these three roads I never once saw a black trainman. In light of Jeff's comment about the 1929 BRT/CRI&P agreement, I'll bet there were few if any black conductors on the Rock Island. I imagine the actual words disappered sometime from later union agreements but the unwritten practice continued on for many more years on a majority of railroads in the north. To the best of my recollection the limits for upward mobility of blacks in train service continued until the late 1960's or early '70's.

    Mark

  •      What I find kind of interesting is what broke the logjam.  L&N should be remembered for having the 1st Black locomotive engineer.  

          What broke the camels back was the locomotive firemans union in the 1960's trying to have a situation were only "promotable" fireman would have job protection as locomotive fireman.  The court case that arose out of the situation essentially gutted any de jure discrimination. As there were many blacks who were already hostling locomotives and who had been rules qualified it was not a big leap to the right seat of a train.(I think this was 1964 or so)(this was from an article I saw in Trains in the 1970's)

           Then reading the article by Michael Gross about his stint as a locomotive fireman on C&NW. The impression I was left with was that particular union was not being given any respect. I guess eventually the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen ceased to exist either by merger or loss of membership.

    Thx IGN