BALTIMORE (WJZ) — All aboard on a trip through black history. Penn Station celebrates contributions to the railroad from former workers.
Gigi Barnett has the story.
For more than a century, African-American men and women were track workers, firemen and porters on the nation’s railway system.
Thursday, workers at Penn Station in Baltimore marked their storied contributions at a black history celebration.
“It’s a lot of history here at Amtrak. There were a lot of things that black people did to make a great contribution to the railroads,” said Miriam Suddoo-Morgan, Amtrak district manager of stations.
“At one time, all we could do was be porters,” said train engineer Carlyle Smith.
Those days are long gone. Smith is one of a handful of black engineers at Amtrak.
Back in 1830, when the first passenger train rolled out of Baltimore, much of the work was done by slaves.
Later on, Jim Crow laws banned blacks from being engineers so they became skilled at other jobs like steamfitters and brakemen.
“It was an opportunity for them to have decent wages and actually be able to have their family be supported without being in the cotton fields,” Smith said.
Today, Smith is best known as the engineer at the helm of President Obama’s 2009 whistlestop tour. Obama was headed to Washington, D.C. to give his inaugural speech.
Smith says he was a part of history that railway workers of the past only dreamed about.
“I went out and bought a new suit. It was the greatest thing that I’ve ever been involved in in my life,” he said.
Pullman porters became the intelligence network for black families escaping slavery in the south. Because they traveled on the trains often, the pullman porters knew what towns along the way to avoid and which ones were safe.
It’s common to find several African-American railway workers who are second and third generation in their families to have worked on the railroad.
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