In June 1929, more than 100 African American employees of the Norfolk and Western Railway’s Bluefield, W. Va., shops gathered for a photograph on steam locomotive 564, a class E-2 engine built in 1910 at the Richmond works of the American Locomotive Company. At the time, N&W was Bluefield’s largest employer, and the majority of the black railroaders were locomotive roundhouse and shop laborers.
A new book, “African American Railroad Workers of Roanoke,” features this photograph on its cover. The book, published in late 2014, is the product of an oral history project undertaken by the Roanoke, Va.,-based African American Norfolk and Western Heritage Group. The group was founded in 1996 by 15 members who retired before 1970, with a combined 170 years of railroad service. A partnership among the Norfolk Southern Historical Collection, the Virginia Museum of Transportation, and the Historical Society of Western Virginia – along with grant funding from the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities – helped to document their stories. A new exhibit at the Virginia Museum of Transportation, opening in February, highlights their pivotal roles.
African American employment on U.S. railroads dates to the antebellum era. After the Civil War, N&W employed blacks in many positions, although not initially as engineers or conductors. African Americans worked as brakemen, firemen, porters, chefs, mechanics, and track laborers, making significant contributions to the building, maintenance, and operation of the railroad. Rail gangs used hand tools, such as pick axes and shovels, to repair and replace track. Porters worked at rail passenger stations, and kitchen staff and waiters prepared and served meals on trains.
“No matter how difficult the job,” N&W President Arthur C. Needles asserted in 1930, African American workers “always tackled and conquered it.”
Photographs, archival materials, and oral histories compiled by the Roanoke N&W heritage group help preserve their stories – as well as the railroad’s story – for future generations.
– Jennifer McDaid, NS historical archivist