African American Women on the American Railroad

Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Riding Jane Crow: African American Women on the American Railroad by Miriam Thaggert examines African American women’s engagement with the railroad as both a travel space and a work site. Using the position of the train car and station Thaggert delves into one of the central and pervasive questions regarding the African American experience: how Black people will occupy and move in public spaces. This examination of nineteenth- and early twentieth- century African American women begins by documenting the experience of passenger travel for African American women aboard segregated train cars through the accounts and literature of African American clubwomen and educators. Thaggert follows this with a discussion of known and lesser-known legal claims of African American women to occupy the “Ladies Car.” The study then pivots from African American women’s connection to the railroad as primarily a travel space to examining service providers—waiter carriers and Pullman maids—in railroad spaces. Throughout the text, Thaggert presses the archives to uncover African American women in historical documentation. In so doing, Riding Jane Crow details multiple, varied, and specific instances of how African American women navigated the train car and related spaces.

At the outset, Riding Jane Crow identifies the significance of the railroad space between 1860-1925. Certainly the railroad represented a technological achievement and pointed to the economic expansion of American industries, but coupled with the newly minted rights granted to African Americans, the railroad space took on additional meaning as it became a site to “assess new, constitutionally granted rights (p.4).” In theory, these rights empowered African Americans with the ability to determine not only how they would occupy public space, but also when and where. Endowed with the right of mobility, “[r]ailroads, and specifically first-class train compartments, became one of the most contested spaces of experimentation for white supremacy and Black assertiveness (p.4).” As this text maintains, for African American women then, the train car became a site for performing citizenship and femininity. Affronts to their race and/or gender were seen as a challenge to African American civil rights. For Thaggert the train car also “reflects the dual condition the African American holds in American culture, a condition of both aspirational mobility… and forced stasis” (p.13). This metaphor, as conveyed in the Introduction and appropriately woven throughout the text aptly articulates the continual cycle of gaslighting not restricted by race, gender, or class.

Chapters one and two closely examine African American women’s railroad travel experiences. Using the personal writings of Anna Julia Cooper and historical fiction short story by Mary Church Terrell, as well as supporting examples from contemporary etiquette manuals, Thaggert outlines the “infrastructure of Jane Crow travel” (p.32). Despite the personal purpose for the trip (i.e., business or pleasure), the contact period within the railroad space was marked by “hypervigilance and possible anxiety” (28). Knowing where to sit and monitoring personal comportment were necessary for safe, efficient, and courteous travel (p.34). Thaggert explains the physical layout of the spaces to illustrate the precariousness of each step and uttered word. The example of Betsey from Terrell’s short story demonstrated how respectability and class do not aid an African American woman’s travel, but rather reinforce the reality that African American women in service capacities (i.e., nanny attending to a young white child) have less confrontational experiences traveling aboard trains (p.41). (This conclusion, however, becomes complicated when examining the experiences of service providers for the benefit of the railroad economies in later chapters (p.46).) And even still, as the author moves into Chapter two, nothing could really ensure a successful travel experience. Thaggert assesses the numerous legal claims of African American women asserting the right to exercise mobility and unveils a long-standing pattern of African American women in defense of their person, which continues into the twentieth-first century. Railroad introduced the “Ladies Car”, designed “to protect the traveling female public from the unwanted attention of male passengers and from the usually harsh conditions found in second-class cars” (p.55). The ladies car afforded African American women seeking passage in this space the opportunity to perform their race, gender, and class identities as an exercise of citizenship (p.54). African American women as “ladies” with access to the privileges of ladydom, namely occupying space in the “Ladies Car” challenged Jim Crow culture aboard the railroad space.

In the second half of the book, Thaggert shifts from a study of African American women’s leisure and business travel to the dynamics of the railroad space as a work site. Here, focusing on the waiter carriers and Pulman maids, Riding Jane Crow adds an additional dimension to the ambiguous racial and class space of the train station platform and the presence of African American women laboring in these progressive spaces (p.73, 98). The trajectory of waiter carriers, “[the] African American women who sold chicken and other food items at the Chesapeake and Ohio train depot in Gordonsville, Virginia”, are the subject of Chapter three (p.69). Meeting a very real need of providing food to train passengers and securing their own livelihood, the archive obscures the history of these women, along with the rise and fall of their work as food service providers. The work of the “counter-archives’” oral and family histories identifies and names these women and records the struggles of securing placement in the depot to sell their food items along with their final displacement from the platform area by 1925. Continuing the analysis of not only the railroad space, but also the economics and services needed to support this space, in Chapter four Thaggert (re)introduces the Pullman maid. The Pullman maid served to “create a sense of opulence for female passengers” aboard the newly fashioned and comfortable Pullman sleeper train cars (p.104). Upon examining the Pullman instruction manual (detailing things such as appearance, voice tone, and comportment) and supervisor and employee notes/encounters, Thaggert concludes that the luxury now available for travel came via the strict labor rules placed on these women.

Thaggert’s engagement with sources is particularly impressive. She moves both within and beyond the traditional archive. Her detailed re-reading of Black women’s autobiographical writings and lawsuits, spatial examinations of train station blueprints, literary analyses, and incorporation of secondary sources create a “counter-archive” for exploring the intersection of race, gender, and the railroad (p.120). Moreover, Thaggert’s close analysis of even the ways that records are archived and preserved teaches us to look beyond the archive when locating meaning in the lives of African American women (p.98). Riding Jane Crow: African American Women on the American Railroad ushers in new directions in African American history and Women’s history. This important study points to additional areas for further research including how African Americans navigate, negotiate, and exist in public space as proof of their citizenship and rightly positions African American women in the histories of travel, labor, transportation, and the American “railroad imaginary.”

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Daleah B. Goodwin

Daleah B. Goodwin is assistant professor of history at Xavier University. She earned her Doctor of Philosophy in U.S. History with a concentration in Women’s Studies and African American History from the University of Georgia, and her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in History from the Florida A&M University. Her research focuses on histories of Black women. She is currently working on a biography—Sisterly Affections: The Work of Miss Hallie Quinn Brown—examining  turn of the twentieth century educator, elocutionist, and activist Miss Hallie Quinn Brown.

Comments on “African American Women on the American Railroad

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    Very nice review and summary of a book I was not aware of. Thanks for bringing this book and subject matter to my attention!

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    Hi the article is very informative

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    Thank you for this insightful review. I look forward to reading this book (and yours) soon.

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    Great review of a powerful and insightful intersectoonal study of Black women as travelers and transportation workers.

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    Very Interesting and informative about Black Women’s experiences and the Railroad. Thank you for this review. I look forward to reading this book.

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    This review is very informative and well done. I will read this book and your future books.

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