Lives on the Railroad: Salisbury, North Carolina, 1927
Riding and Working on the Railroad
In the 1920s railroads were a central part of American life. Railroad lines crisscrossed the country. They carried people, manufactured goods, food, the daily mail, and express packages. Railroads made long-distance travel possible, but the opportunities for travel were not equally shared. In the South, African Americans were segregated into separate cars from white travelers.
Salisbury, North Carolina, was linked to the nationwide system by the Southern Railway. Its main route ran between Washington, D.C., and New Orleans, Louisiana, by way of Salisbury. The depot and rail freight sheds made the town a part of the country’s rail network. The railroad also provided job opportunities in the community: in nearby Spencer, the vast locomotive repair shops employed 2,500 skilled workers.
Next look at the case outside of the train station.
In the 1920s the Pullman Company was the largest single employer of African American men. From the 1870s through the 1960s, tens of thousands worked for Pullman as sleeping-car porters. The feeling of sleeping-car luxury came from the porter. He “made down” berths at night and “made up” the berths into seating in the morning, helped with luggage, and answered passengers’ calls at any hour. Working 400 hours a month, porters earned better wages than most African Americans, but degrading conditions helped lead to the founding of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in 1925.
Now walk over to the train platform for the next stop.
Steam locomotive No. 1401, 1926
Built in 1926, No. 1401 is one of 64 locomotives of its class that ran on the Southern Railway from the mid-1920s until the early 1950s. A flagship locomotive of “the Southern,” the 1401 rolled on the Charlotte Division, between Greenville, South Carolina, and Salisbury, North Carolina. It pulled passenger trains at speeds up to 80 miles per hour. In April 1945 the 1401 pulled President Franklin Roosevelt’s funeral train on part of its journey to Washington, D.C.
The next stop is the label down in front of the locomotive, at the far wall.
Transportation has long been a flash point in the struggle for racial equality in America. In 1896 the Supreme Court’s Plessy v. Ferguson decision declared racial segregation legal. For the next half century, until 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education reversed Plessy, the doctrine of “separate but equal” was the law of the land.
After 1954, segregation remained a common practice. Mass protests against segregated transportation helped create the modern civil rights movement. The Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott of 1955–56 showed the power of nonviolent direct action and encouraged other forms of protest against institutionalized racism.
Transportation issues remained at the forefront of the movement when it entered the next stage: making sure that the new laws were being applied. In 1961 integrated groups of activists calling themselves Freedom Riders boarded buses and traveled into the South to see if bus stations were desegregated as ordered. The Freedom Riders were attacked as they traveled, and one of their buses was burned in Alabama. But their efforts pressured the federal government to make states comply with desegregation laws.
Because of these kinds of protests over transportation, laws and social customs began to change throughout the segregated South.
The next stop is on Route 66. Walk back up the ramp to the actual slab of the highway.