Book Excerpt: ‘African American Railroad Workers of Roanoke: Oral Histories of the Norfolk & Western’

Posted by | June 18, 2014

ShereeScarboroughPlease welcome guest author Sheree Scarborough. Scarborough is an award-winning historian with thirty years experience in oral and public history. She holds degrees (a BA, magna cum laude, and an MA) from the University of Texas at Austin. Scarborough directed the Frank Erwin Oral History Project in the 1990s in Austin, which produced an archive of over two hundred interviews with state and national leaders, and has been involved in such projects as the University of Texas Oral History Project and the Pennzoil-Texaco Oral History Project. Scarborough moved to the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia in 2010. Since then, she has been involved in an oral history project with the University of Virginia and most recently has conducted the interviews for and directed the Cotton to Silk Oral History Project in Roanoke. We’re pleased to present this excerpt from the introduction to her latest book, African American Railroad Workers of Roanoke: Oral Histories of the Norfolk & Western, which just published.


Roanoke is one of America’s great rail centers and prides itself on that history; it was the original headquarters to N&W Railway for 100 years and continues to be an important location for Norfolk Southern Corporation, the result of the 1982 merger of N&W and Southern Railway. African Americans have a long history with the railroad, as Dr. Theodore Carter DeLaney points out in his essay, a history that began before the Civil War when enslaved people helped construct tracks across the country and exists through to the present day.

RR book cover

African Americans have played an important role in the history of the N&W Railway and NS as well. That role has evolved over time as laws have changed and doors of opportunity have opened. This book endeavors to tell the stories of some of these railroaders, “in their own words,” whose careers spanned the years from Jim Crow to the Civil Rights Movement to today’s institutional diversity programs. Some of the stories are the stories of pioneers who paved the way to today’s more level playing field, and some are the stories of their children and grandchildren who have become the engineers, conductors, and corporate managers, positions that were denied to earlier generations. And, in many cases, in telling their own stories, they tell the stories of their father or grandfather who worked for the railroad and their mother or grandmother who urged them on and supported them. It is a multi-voiced, multi-generational tapestry of voices that tells the story of struggle, resilience, and triumph. This book is the result of interviews with some of the individuals who worked on the railroad. I conducted interviews in 2013 with retired Norfolk & Western and Norfolk Southern railroad employees as well as those who are currently employed by Norfolk Southern in the Roanoke Valley. …

… Once we had a publisher, deadline, and limited word count for the manuscript, decisions had to be made about which interview excerpts to include. This was very difficult, possibly the most difficult of all the processes involved with the project. Decisions were made based on the stories’ poignancy, power, and thematic importance. Powerful themes emerged from the interviews—themes concerning a thriving African American community in Roanoke that in some ways no longer exists; the strong role the railroad and the black “railroad man” played within this community; the importance of mentors, black and white; the power of education; commitment and a strong work ethic; and the importance of self-respect, quiet strength, determination, and giving back to the larger community. These tight bonds of kinship and community are explored more fully in Dr. C.W. Sullivan’s essay. Suffice it to say here that most of the interviewees were raised in families with fathers, uncles, grandfathers, other family members, or “father figures” who worked for Norfolk & Western; and today many of them also have siblings and children who work for Norfolk Southern.

Class R switching steam engine No. 397 with swallowtail tank, built September 1893. Norfolk Southern Corporation.

Class R switching steam engine No. 397 with swallowtail tank, built September 1893. Norfolk Southern Corporation.

As one might imagine, bridging the time period between Jim Crow and today, there are quite a few “firsts” in this group of interviewees. For the N&W Roanoke Division there was the first African American machinist, clerk in Freight Traffic, supervisor of the East End Shops, police officer, and engineer. For the Virginia Division there was the first chief dispatcher and the first operational vice president not only for N&W but for the entire railroad industry. There is a profound awareness that the people who came before made their positions possible. This is so ably said by David Cobbs, “The Al Hollands of the world … blazed the trail. They put up with stuff that probably I wouldn’t have been able to put up with. By the time I got out here, for the most part, it was accepted that if you were black that you could make it out here. I think that’s why I’ve been successful, Terry Evans has been successful, and any number of African Americans out there have been successful … they [made] the way better for me.”

The narrators discuss some of their experiences with racism and discrimination. But, for the most part, the major story they wanted to tell me was one of triumph over that racism. In the older generation, the self-styled “Cottons,” the ones who experienced the Jim Crow years and were prevented from moving up in the company, triumphed by working at a job with low wages and yet were able to provide for their families and, in most cases, moved to higher positions after the Civil Rights Act. The generation that was hired in the 1960s-70s and beyond, the “Silks”—especially those with a college education—triumphed by being hired as management trainees, encountering some racist situations but staying the course by confronting those situations directly or going through the proper corporate channels. Even one of the younger interviewees encountered some racist attitudes from coworkers (not the corporation) that were “underground,” but those were dealt with and didn’t impair his career or enjoyment of his work.

The truth is, that even after 1964, Norfolk & Western was slow to change. But, today, Norfolk Southern has a strong, award-winning diversity initiative, and has an assistant vice president of EEO and Diversity who happens to be African American and heads a large staff that is dedicated to not only diversifying the company with regard to race, but also with regard to gender, geographic background, and thinking style, to name a few. One of my interviewees, Terry Evans, the first African American Vice President of Transportation, spoke in his interview about how the railroad has changed as America has changed and will evolve even more in the future: “The railroad is a byproduct of America. [There is] no way for the railroad not to become more diverse when the employee base is becoming more diverse. It’s just a natural progression of things. … You take a snapshot of America and you could almost take that same number in the snapshot and that’s the railroad. We go to the same hiring base as everyone else in America, and as America changes—and the country is changing—that will be our workforce.” Mr. Swain, one of the older interviewees, noted that still more needs to be done: “I appreciate what I see out there now, but things are still not where they should be, not even with Norfolk Southern. It’s not where it should be, but they’re working on it.”

N&W signal repairmen, 1929. Norfolk Southern Corporation.

N&W signal repairmen, 1929. Norfolk Southern Corporation.

In the chapters that follow, the narrators speak for themselves. In order to have more room for the stories and increase their impact, I’ve removed my questions from the interview excerpts. The full transcripts will be available at the HMWV archives. The interviews were open-ended, but my questions included subjects such as childhood background; education; mentors; recreation; other railroaders in the family; milestones of career/positions held; segregation; instances of racism; union activities; duties and responsibilities for their position; effects of Jim Crow, World War II, and the Civil Rights Act on their working life; and the impact that working for the railroad has had on their children and grandchildren. The interview excerpts were edited for accuracy and readability, while preserving the narrators’ meanings.

The book is greatly improved by having the essays of three local experts in the fields of African American history, occupational folklore, and the Roanoke Valley included. Dr. DeLaney’s essay speaks to the railroad history of African Americans that is the backdrop of this project, and details the difficult conditions and enormous gains that have been made by African American railroaders over the course of the twentieth century. Dr. Sullivan’s essay elaborates on the themes of kinship and community that are such a strong aspect of the stories told in this volume, especially the roles of fathers and grandfathers who were the respected “railroad men.” George Kegley’s essay offers insight into how the railroad influenced the local community, his friendship with Al Holland, and why the HSWV took such an interest in seeing this oral history project and book to completion. Their essays, and this one, will be part of the virtual exhibit on the HMWV website.

Finally, a word about oral history. As Dr. DeLaney points out, oral history is the remembrances of individuals “as they remember it,” and as such portrays the nuances of past experiences and memories without necessarily adhering to strict chronologies and historical detail. As editor, I take complete responsibility for any dates and facts that are incorrect, names misspelled, or other inaccuracies. Every effort has been made to ensure the material is free from error.

Due to space limitations not all of the interviewees’ stories were included in this book. I wish excerpts could have been included from all the interviews as each one has a particular power, beauty, and truth. The expanded, updated exhibit at VMT, the virtual exhibit, and the archived interviews at HMWV exist as partners with this book in telling these stories more completely, as the story is ongoing, complicated, and complex.

Although there have been recent publications that address the role African Americans have played in the building and maintaining of America’s railroads, none has focused on the Roanoke Valley or the Norfolk & Western Railway. It is my hope that this book will help document the lives and careers of African Americans living and working in Southwestern Virginia in one of the most American of industries—the railroad—and through some of the most tumultuous and momentous events of the twentieth century. I feel honored to have been a part of this project and hope that the publication of the book, an updated exhibit at the VMT, an online exhibit, and the archiving of these interviews will encourage others to continue the work of documenting the contributions of African American railroad workers in the Roanoke area. Finally, I hope the book lives up to Mike Worrell’s sentiment about publishing these stories: “That’s a good thing because everybody needs to hear it. Not only is it a story of them, it’s actually a story of the railroad or how the railroad got to where they are at. Without those stories, there wouldn’t be an America.” As David Cobbs told the Roanoke Times (February 16, 2014), “This is not just African American history, this is everybody’s story.”

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