Saturday, June 22, 2013

African Americans on CPRR

From: "Mayra París" maparis13[at]

I just saw that in 2006 you answered a question on the CPRR Discussion Group blog about Chinese passengers on the railroad. I was wondering if you had similar information about African American passengers. I'm an author and I'm working on a novel about an African-American traveling from New York City to Oregon.

Would African American [black] passengers have been segregated from the other passengers in special cars or would they simply have been forced to buy seats in the lower class cars? I also would like to know if you can direct me to any type of resource that could tell me about prices and travel times circa 1890? ...

—Mayra Paris


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Have not come across any writings that would directly answer your question beyond the 2006 discussion that you read. Note that as detailed in the 1889 and 1891 editions of the Official Guide of the Railways, there were a variety of rail routes that could be used in addition to the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads to get from New York to Oregon by 1890. For example the Northern Pacific was completed on September 8, 1883.

6/22/2013 8:44 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Central Pacific Railroad management, Charles Crocker, who built the railroad was, as stated in Congressional testimony, an "an abolitionist ... prominently engaged in the underground railroad," so segregation should not be assumed.

6/22/2013 9:29 AM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

From: "Larry Mullaly"

I have never seen anything explicitly on this topic relative to the Central Pacific [railroads in the Southern states were an entirely different matter]. I recently came across a reference in one of the debates of the California Constitutional Convention of 1878 on this topic that you might find of interest.

James McMillan Shafter, delegate from California's Third Congressional District, speaking on Nov. 22nd, noted the following in regard to what constituted "abuse" of the public on the part of the railroad:

"Some of my friends here might object to colored gentlemen – for whom I entertain great respect, which I manifested at the time when they needed it – getting on the same car with you, and he is put out, is that an abuse? If you happened to get a couple of old lineback New England abolitionists, they would fetch you up with a round turn."

[Debates and Proceedings of the [California] Constitutional Convention, Vol. 1, p. 489].

Shafter, a California judge and former US Congressman, cites this as an example of the type of issues that Railroad Commissioners would have to adjudicate, suggesting that a three-person board of commissioners would find this, and many other issues, insoluble.

Chinese and native Americans, however, were kept fairly segregated from first class travelers – unless, the Chinese person was of the merchant class and could display some wealth.

I also have the impression that porters on these trains were often black [complaints usually are directed at the heavy-handedness of white conductors, without mention of the porters]. There may have also been black porters regularly employed at the railroad offices as messengers, and general handymen in the New York and San Francisco. Conversely, labor at train stations seems to have been white.

I have seen no evidence that black labor was used in constructing or maintaining track in the Far West during the 1860's-1870's.

The timeframe of your story may have some relevance to the topic. During the Civil War, the majority of Californians supported the Union Party, a coalition of Northern Democrats and Republicans. I would suspect that in cities such as Sacramento and San Francisco, there was sympathy for blacks. This was certainly not the case in some rural areas, particularly those south of Stockton whose smaller populations were very secessionist.

Good luck with your book!

Larry Mullaly

6/22/2013 9:43 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Regarding evidence that black labor was used in constructing or maintaining track in the Far West, Professor John Hoyt William's book A Great and Shining Road recounts that "the Union Pacific did employ several hundred black workers on the Plains" [p.94] to build the line. According to Moguls and Iron Men by James McCague, included in the Union Pacific's mostly Irish construction workers was a "three-hundred-man force of Negro freedmen of whom little is known except that they were said to have made good workers" [p.117].

6/22/2013 9:46 AM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

From: "Mayra París"

Thank you so very much for the information. It's going to be of great help to me. ... Again, thank you so much.

6/22/2013 1:38 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...


Hello Mayra,

For travel information you need to find a copy of the Offical Guide to the Railways It will include information on schedules and fares. Many railroad museum libraries have copies. There may be some available on line or reporduced on CD’s.

I suspect an African American would find that race and prejudice were very different on the two coasts. California was a much more diverse community, going back to the gold rush in 1849, when California was effectively as close to Europe as it was to New York, and much closer to South and Central America, Asia, and Australia. The African American population was small, and so, they would find that they were “exotic” rather than an economic or social threat. Of course many would carry old prejudices from other places.

In the early placer mining communities (1849-1855), slave labor was considered an unfair advantage in an industry based on individual labor.

The first significant African American immigration west is associated with the railroads, with employment offered both by Pullman and by the Central Pacific. Collis P. Huntington advocated that Central Pacific should hire African Americans as railroad workers in the aftermath of the 1893 Pullman strike, believing that they were less likely to join unions. The railroad jobs were good, well paying working class jobs. There was defacto rather than legal segregation like the south. Significant vibrant Black communities were found places like West Oakland (associated with the western end of the Central Pacific) and Pasadena (associated with the Santa Fe)

At the same time there was some limited agricultural immigration, both as farm labor but also forming their own communities, particularly Allensworth, now a state park.

The next great immigration is associated with World War II …

—Randy Hees

6/24/2013 8:42 AM  

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