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Setting the Stage

Historical Context

While African-Americans were employed in significant numbers by the railroads, it is important to note that most were denied membership in the traditional railroad unions. This meant that the jobs they held were usually the most grueling and labor intensive in the railroad industry. In spite of the hardships they endured, the jobs they performed were vital to the operation of the railroad. Prior to the Civil War, slaves were put to work building many of the original railroads in the south. Following the war, many former slaves went to work rebuilding the railroads that, like much of the south, had been left in ruins by the conflict.
In the north and on railroads such as the B&O, African-American laborers competed for jobs with the immigrants who were coming to America in ever-increasing numbers. There was a fierce rivalry between various ethnic groups for these low-paying jobs. Nevertheless, railroads like the B&O could not have been constructed or operated without the contributions of African-American laborers.
Despite the significant number of African-American employees on railroads, most were denied membership in the traditional railroad unions. Established in 1912, the Association of Colored Railway Trainmen and Locomotive Firemen was one of the first African-American labor unions. At its peak in 1926, this organization could boast approximately 3,500 members. A. Philip Randolph formed the nation’s first widely successful African-American union in 1925. Called the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and Maids, this organization successfully lobbied for greater economic opportunities and equality for both male and female African-American railroad employees. Mr. Randolph became an influential figure on the national political scene, speaking out on civil rights issues for decades. One of his notable achievements was to organize the famous March on Washington in 1963. He can be seen standing with Martin Luther King as he delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial.
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