The Transcontinental Railroad, African Americans and the California DreamBreaking News
tags: African American history, transcontinental railroad, California history
Alison Rose Jefferson is a historian and author of the forthcoming book, Living the California Dream: African American Leisure Sites During the Jim Crow Era.
A pivotal moment for the era and a monumental industrial infrastructure achievement in the history of the United States, the transcontinental railroad completion in 1869 had a profound effect on American life which changed the nation forever. It was a revolution which reduced travel time from the east to west coasts from months to about a week, and at less cost than previous overland and by sea options, that open economic and cultural opportunities for the possibilities of the movement of people and goods. It opened California, other parts of the U.S., and the Pacific World to more travelers, tourists, emigrants, and settlers.
A settler colonialist and imperialist project, corporate and military organization hosted imported (mostly from China) laborers who were paid low wages to plow across and lay the tracks through indigenous people’s sovereign nation lands to connect the distant colony of California to become a vital part of the U.S. continental empire. The railroad companies produced pamphlets and magazines to recruit whites from the U.S. and Europe to settle in California and the West, and those who wanted to explore the Western landscape from the comfort of the modern railway car. Although not thought of as part of the audience for this promotion, African Americans would also learn and benefit from what the transcontinental railroad could offer.
Before, during and after the transcontinental line’s construction, in southern states, thousands of enslaved and then freedmen worked on the railroads grading lines, building bridges, and blasting tunnels. They working as firemen shoveling coal into the boiler riding alongside the engineer, and as brakemen and yard switchmen. They loaded baggage and freight, and sometimes drove the train. Even with racist resistance to blacks as they migrated to northern states that rose after the Civil War, the new freedmen joined their northern brothers in the few jobs like these mentioned which were open to them.
The post-Civil War years into the early decades of the twentieth century, black men gained employment on the transcontinental railroad, most often as Pullman Company’s Palace Car porters and waiters, helping to define American travel during the railroad transportation era. These Pullman porters, as they were called, made “porter” synonymous with “Negro,” and provided glorified servant work as valet, bellhop, maid, and janitor for luxury sleeper cars used for overnight travel. Pullman cars were like or better than the best of America’s hostelries of the era, only on wheels.
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