Brotherhoods of Color

Eric Arnesen, an associate professor of history and African American studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago, won the John H. Dunning Prize of the American Historical Association in 1991 for his book, Waterfront Workers of New Orleans: Race, Class, and Politics, 1863-1923 (1991). In Brotherhoods of Color, Arnesen turns his attention to another topic in the history of labor and race relations, the growth of black railroad unions from the late nineteenth century to the late twentieth century.

In the years following the Civil War, few jobs were available to the newly freed black population of the United States. Landless and lacking access to education and capital, many worked as sharecroppers or domestic servants. The industrializing nation was expanding its railroad system, though, and this expansion offered new jobs. The hard and dangerous work of laying railroad tracks often fell to black laborers, who were immortalized by the legend of John Henry. Better jobs became available inside the trains. With the spread of Pullman sleeping cars and dining cars in the late 1800’s, occupations as Pullman porters and dining car waiters became some of the best opportunities available to African Americans. However, these opportunities were strictly limited. African Americans could not hope to be promoted to conductors or stewards, much less engineers. White unions discriminated against black workers and railroad management played blacks against whites in order to keep wages down.

Black railroad workers formed their own unions in response to this situation and in the years following World War I, they gradually won many concessions. Still racial segregation in the railroad industry continued until recent times, with some discriminatory practices disappearing only in the 1970’s. Eric Arnesen’s book is a key contribution to the history of this sad, but often heroic struggle for equality.