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Please use this identifier to cite or link to this item: http://hdl.handle.net/1807/24784

Title: Organized for a Fair Deal: African American Railroad Workers in the Deep South, 1900-1940
Authors: Kelly, Joseph
Advisor: Halpern, Rick
Department: History
Keywords: Labour
U.S History
Issue Date: 13-Aug-2010
Abstract: This study concerns the organized activity of African American railroad workers in Deep South states such as Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana. The study opens with a broad discussion of wage labour as an aspect of the political economy of the Mississippi Delta and the Piney Woods of Mississippi. By establishing wage labour as a vital aspect of the Deep South economy, the opening chapter sets the scene for the main discussion on the activities of African American railroad workers. This study shows that African American railroad workers protested various racial impositions on them, including their exclusion from white dominated craft unions within the American Federation of Labor (AFL), the ongoing push from white railroad trainmen to have them removed from lucrative posts in the train service, as well as railroad employers’ insistence on keeping them as lowly paid substitutes for white labour. They also took good advantage of federal wartime control over the railroads to challenge prejudiced notions of their skills and experience as workers. African American railroaders were persistent fighters for fair employment practices well before the legendary A. Philip Randolph came on the scene. They engaged their employers and white workers in varying ways. African American railroad shopmen did not hesitate to join subordinate locals of the white-dominated craft unions in the AFL. They participated with white shopmen in the important railroad shop strikes of 1911 and 1922. Their counterparts in the train service tended to build independent organisations and used subtle forms of protest such as letters, petitions and legal suits in preference to strike action. Although organized African American trainmen used seemingly unconfrontational approaches to making their grievances heard, the study cautions against the presumption that these organizations were either weak or unassertive. Careful organisation and preparation for a court appearance or filing a petition with an employer such as the Illinois Central, involved a collective will that cannot be pigeonholed within a dichotomy of militancy versus conformity. African American railroad workers resisted their domination and exploitation on railroads in the Deep South by building effective organizations often within the fold of the AFL. Acknowledgements The road toward this dissertation has been a journey that has seen my transformation from a dilettantish South African intellectual to a serious-minded historian of African American labour and social history. This transformation has neither been a huge nor dramatic leap. Thanks to my thesis supervisor Rick Halpern, with his own interest in collaborative research on race and labour in the U.S and South Africa, I have constantly been aware of the spiritual affinity between the struggles of African Americans for democratic freedoms in the U.S and African people’s struggles against racial domination in South Africa. I have gained enormously from the sure guidance of my committee - Rick Halpern, Dan Bender and Michael Wayne. Rick has been the perfect mentor and thesis supervisor. He supported me in finding focus for my ideas and ensured that I maintained meticulous attention to detail and allowed me to pursue my intellectual goals independently. Dan has been there to provide supportive feedback with sharp insights into the various ways I could widen the horizon of the possible uses of sometimes unyielding primary resource material. Michael has alerted me to the necessity of clear and effective writing, and during my time working with him as a teaching assistant, he was a model of eloquence in teaching. I am grateful for the advice and direction I received from other scholars working in the field of Southern labour and social history, including Michael Honey, Laurie Beth Green, Charles W. Crawford and Eric Arnesen. Eric’s pioneering work on race and labour on U.S railroads has provided this study a key point of critical engagement. I wish to acknowledge my intellectual debt to his skilfully-handled work on relations between African American and white workers in the early twentieth century South. Numerous librarians and archivists inevitably had a hand in the completion of this study. At the University of Toronto’s Robarts Library, I’m especially grateful to Jane L. Lynch, resource sharing specialist, for her quiet but ever efficient support. Retired director of the Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation & Archives at Cornell University, Richard Strassberg guided me to the best available material on railroad labour. Richard also spent time chatting and sharing his wide knowledge of the field of U. S labour history. He was on hand to steer me away from too hasty judgements that could have led me down quite unfruitful research paths. Kheel Center staff, reference archivist Patrizia Sione and administrative assistant Melissa Holland gave assistance with a generosity that went beyond the call of duty. Other archivists who provided attentiveness and outstanding service include: Ed Frank, curator at the Special Collections Department, University of Memphis Library; Walter B. Hill of the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, DC; Guy Hall at the South-eastern region office of the National Archives and Records Administration in Morrow, Georgia; and G. Wayne Dowdy at the Shelby County Public Library in Memphis. Various archivists at the Shelby County Archives, Memphis, Tennessee; at the Newberry Library, Chicago, Illinois; and the Mississippi Department of Archives & History in Jackson, Mississippi, also deserve special mention for their responsiveness and enthusiasm to provide support. My debts, even before the outset of research for this project are numerous. Thanks to the University of Toronto for the fellowship funds and the research travel grants that have sustained me throughout my time as a graduate student. The love, care and patience of my partner Darryl Gershater has been indispensable in helping me keep perspective during my early years in Toronto when the environment seemed frosty and alienating. The completion of this dissertation is by no means sufficient or just compensation for her devotion and tireless support, or for the loss of dreams that she has had to set aside while I drilled away at my studies. I am deeply appreciative of the Gershater family, especially Adele, Josh and Lee-Anne. Their friendship and the tenderness of their home have helped me find in Canada a place of belonging and hope. Personal debts that I particularly wish to mention include Peter Alexander and Carolyn O’Reilly in Johannesburg, South Africa, who encouraged me to apply for the PhD programme in History at the University of Toronto. Stephen Greenberg, Stacey Haahjem and Tina Smith, your steady friendship over the distance of oceans has been a vital source of inspiration. I wish also to thank Bill Freund, emeritus professor in Economic History at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, South Africa, for his advice, persisting confidence and long-standing support. I am grateful also to Peter Brock, the late founder of the University of Toronto’s Carmen Brock Fellowship. Though Peter has not seen this project to the end, he always checked on my progress with a warmth and friendship that I always cherish. I wish finally to mention two people who remind me that even strangers in a bitter and estranged world are capable of basic kindliness. Elton Weaver, a PhD graduate in the History Department at Memphis State University, shines out as an example of African American fraternal feeling and openness. Katherine Bowers, a graduate student in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literature, Northwestern University, Chicago, treated me to the friendliest atmosphere I could possibly have expected over the month of my stay in Chicago. To my mother, Doris Kelly, and my brood of siblings, nieces and nephews back in South Africa – you are with me on this excursion into a small part of the past of a people – African Americans – whom I believe do share with you and others back home, a common resource of spirit and optimism in the face of great adversity.
URI: http://hdl.handle.net/1807/24784
Appears in Collections:Doctoral
Department of History - Doctoral theses

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