A new exhibit at the Catherwood Library of the School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, documents the history of racial discrimination in the railroad industry. The exhibit, “The Other Side of The Tracks: Discrimination and Social Mobility in the Railroad Industry,” will be on display through August 31.
Curators Elizabeth Parker and Steven Calco gathered historical photographs, documents, and objects from the extensive railroad collections of the Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives to create the exhibit. “With these gems from the archives, we try to bring untold stories to light of people who are misrepresented or underrepresented within the historical record,” Calco said.
The exhibit traces the historic struggles and successes of African American and women railroad workers in the twentieth century. Working on the railroads provided both financial and societal standing for numerous Americans, and for traditionally excluded populations, the struggle to attain these benefits often meant fighting discrimination and violence from both management and the labor unions. Black train employees also faced insidious threats from their White counterparts, including a wave of assassinations in the Memphis District of the Illinois Central Railroad from the 1910s to the 1940s.
Inequities in wages, lack of opportunities, and gender and racial discrimination were rampant in the railroad industry. The first labor groups and unions sprung from these harsh conditions, including the all-Black Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters founded in 1925 by civil rights leader Asa Philip Randolph.