B&O museum showcases black history

February 02, 2009|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,liz.kay@baltsun.com

The image of one woman buffing another woman's nails in a railroad dining car struck Keith Gabel.

Their hairstyles are clearly from another era. But the black woman is dressed as a servant in the black-and-white photo from the early 1900s, an image that Gabel said highlighted their different roles during that period.

"It's kind of glaring, when you saw that," said the Bel Air resident, visiting the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Museum's Black History Month exhibit yesterday.

Various displays highlight the experiences of African-Americans as both railroad passengers and employees from the start of Jim Crow laws after the Civil War through desegregation.

Some of this history is a little more than 50 years old. The federal Interstate Commerce Commission banned railroad segregation in 1955.

"It's hard to wrap your mind around, especially today when you think we just inaugurated a black president just a few weeks ago," said Gabel, 38, who brought his 5-year-old son, Steven, to the museum yesterday.

"It took a long time to get things where they should be," said volunteer docent Paul Bridge of Sykesville.

No research has shown that the B&O Railroad used slave labor to build its lines. And the company, which ran through the North as well as some states bordering the South, did not have an official segregation policy for its passenger cars, said John Maranto, the museum's curator of archives. However, passengers were separated by class, with women, children and "gentlemen" riding separately from gambling men and others, a form of de facto segregation.

An early segregation battle was fought - and lost - over railroad passenger Homer Plessy's decision to sit in a white passenger car in Louisiana. In the 1896 case of Plessy v. Ferguson, the Supreme Court established the legal precedent of "separate but equal."

But "separate wasn't always equal," Maranto said. The museum has on display the last known "Jim Crow" car in existence, which ran on a branch line of the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad from 1900 to 1954. That line was in Southern states.

Black passengers in that car rode between the area reserved for white passengers and the baggage area, Maranto said. Unlike the white section, which was decorated with gold leaf and carved wood, black passengers suffered in cramped seats next to a hot stove. "It certainly was not meant to be the most comfortable place for them," he said.

The conditions surprised 16-year-old Geneva Knight of West Baltimore. "I was shocked. I couldn't believe our ancestors had to deal with that," she said.

The museum also honors the roles of black employees, including cooks, cleaners and porters. In the roundhouse, the documentary Miles of Smiles, Years of Struggle describes the experiences of Pullman porters.

After the Civil War, the Pullman Co. was one of the few to hire black workers, and by the 1920s it had become the largest employer of African-Americans. However, conditions were not necessarily ideal. In 1925, A. Philip Randolph started the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, a labor union, to advocate for the rights of these workers.

"You had blacks leading blacks to get a better life for themselves on the railroad," Maranto said. Over time, "it helped create a lot of change."

HISTORY ON RAILS

Former Pullman porter E. Donald Hughes will give a talk, "Rails to Riches: the Pullman Porter," describing his experience working on the railroads, at the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Museum at 12:30 p.m. Feb. 14. In honor of Valentine's Day, museum visitors who wear red will receive a $1 discount off admission that day. Admission to the museum is $14 for adults and $8 for children ages 2 to 12.

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