Let’s make it National Railroaders Appreciation Day

Guest post by Theodore Kornweibel, Jr.

Pop quiz: Who are Pamela Beckham and Lisa Harris, and why should you know them?

Second question: What industry has been, historically, the most male dominated? Admittedly, that’s a hard one: there are so many candidates. But I’m a historian, so I’ll venture an answer: the railroad industry.

May 11 is National Train Day. Let’s start the festivities with a bit of history (don’t worry; I’ll get back to Pamela and Lisa). Whether driving spikes or driving a locomotive, railroading has always been considered a male profession. Even today, women in the industry still have to be thick-skinned to endure the slurs and jibes of men who think their presence on the rails brings bad luck, or who are just male chauvinists.

But as I studied railroad history, I uncovered a contradictory phenomenon. African American women were the first female railroaders, two decades before white women. They were slaves. Enslaved and free blacks, including females, built most of the South’s railroads before and after the Civil War. They weren’t just cooking and washing, either. While American society regarded white femininity as something to be protected, black women never had that luxury. Enslaved women, working alongside their husbands (and occasionally their children), cut through the wilderness, graded the land for tracks, and hustled rails and ties. After slavery ended, black women abandoned such brutal labor, but continued to work as railroad cooks, car cleaners, and janitors. When white women broke glass ceilings and found clean work in railroad offices, black women continued to be excluded and limited to performing hot, dirty, and frequently dangerous manual labor jobs. Railroading a male profession? Not so. But a white person’s profession? Until recently, affirmative.

Back to Pamela and Lisa. Black (and white) women have used civil rights laws from the 1960s to claw their way to the top trades. Pamela Beckham is an Amtrak conductor, the first woman to head an all-black, all-female crew (conductor, brakeman, and engineer). A train doesn’t move an inch without the conductor’s appropriate signal to the engineer. The engineer, who drives the locomotive, doesn’t open the throttle without her conductor’s permission.  The two of them share responsibility for the lives, literally, of the hundreds of passengers on their train.

Lisa Harris is an Amtrak engineer with an Acela high-speed train under her control. The next time you travel safely and on time from Washington to New York, observe the landscape a-blur while your train rockets at 150 miles per hour. Be thankful that Lisa and every other engineer is not only highly trained, but conscientious and committed to getting you safely to your destination.

Today, it’s no rarity to see African Americans in skilled and responsible positions on any railroad. Black men have surged ahead, but female engineers and conductors are close behind, particularly on Amtrak. So let’s close the historical loop. Enslaved women labored alongside enslaved men to build the South’s first rail network. For a hundred years after Emancipation, black men continued to be excluded from working as conductors and engineers. Black women didn’t have a ghost of a chance. Historical wrongs have today been largely righted. But let’s not forget the railroad pioneers, many of whom are still working.

So when you attend National Train Day festivities in your city, look for black railroaders. If they’re staffing your train, thank them for their professionalism and skill. Let’s expand the ceremonies to make the holiday into National Railroaders Appreciation Day. If you’re black, or have studied black history, you know how hard railroad men and women of color have worked to get where they are. Thank you, Pamela and Lisa. You’ve inspired us all.

kornweibelTed Kornweibel, professor emeritus of African American history at San Diego State University, retired in 2006 after a distinguished 36-year career as a scholar and teacher. His most recent book, Railroads in the African American Experience: A Photographic Journey, won the George W. and Constance M. Hilton Award for Best Railroad Book of 2011.  A photograph of Lisa Harris appears on page 505.