non-fiction, writing

How it Was for Black Men of the Railroads

Photo by Johannes Rapprich on

Slaves moved from the fields to the railroad jobs

not called by their name, but names they called them.

Working on the railroad was hard for blacks

they risked their lives jumping from car to car

the color of their skin ruled what they did

taking risks not really a choice, you see.

Laws kept the black man from more skilled jobs

even though they had exceptional skills.

Laying track though rough lands and tunnels too—

shovels, picks, axes, explosives were used.

Bring along the wheelbarrows, ropes, and mules

driving heavy spikes precisely trued up.

Precision was important for setting rails

no doubt any slight difference caused death.

Derailment came if not measured right

and the black man made sure others were safe.

Black prisoners had the riskiest jobs

often left to die when falling from cliffs.

Nothing to be said for their souls right then;

they considered them less than valued life,

and the way they became such laborers

did not match the crime or even confirmed.

A Pullman job was prestigious, true

but they treated them just like equipment.

Life back then, the way they treated black men,

inspired the movements of civil rights.

Sleeping Car Porters had a brotherhood

inspired by treatment of these nameless souls.

It would be many years before a change

many souls would march for their civil rights—

Randolph, King, Malcolm X to name just some

to step forth for souls until kingdom comes.


This poem was inspired from research I have done after learning of the black prisoners who lost their lives working for the railroads and the suspicious ways they came into being imprisoned. And for the treatment of railroad workers who went straight from slavery to continued enslavement, yet believing in a dream.

7 thoughts on “How it Was for Black Men of the Railroads”

    1. I do not believe that people are free from oppression. I just hope that it is better, but I don’t believe we are where we need to be, not by a long shot. Whenever I read about the way people have been treated it just breaks my heart and I can only take so much of it before I have to regroup and find ways to facilitate change. I think it is important to be reminded and to perhaps see some parallels.


  1. It’s a harsh history, and what galls me the most is that the so-called Christians who went to church and did lip service and owned or ran the railroads took these same men for whom Jesus died and treated them this way without a qualm. Sorry, wrong done by people who claim to be believers, especially this level of institutional wrong, just pushes all of my buttons.

    Liked by 1 person

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