Robert C. Hayden Interviews the “Knights of the Rail”: An Oral History of Black American Railroad Workers in Boston

A page from the Knights of the Rail exhibit guide with a photo of George Pullman

A page from the “Knights of the Rail” exhibit guide, which tells the history leading up to the formation of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.

Author: Shay Park, Archives Assistant

At Boston’s Back Bay Station, there is a statue and a permanent exhibit commemorating civil rights and labor organizer A. Philip Randolph. Randolph’s activism began in the early twentieth century and continued through the Civil Rights Era. Notably, he was a co-organizer of the March on Washington on August 23, 1963, one of the largest political rallies in history. He also organized the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, a union for railroad porters of the Pullman Car Company, in 1925. The Brotherhood’s Boston members are the focus of the Back Bay exhibit, titled “Knights of the Rail.” The exhibit takes the form of six porcelain panels mounted on walls inside the station.

Within our Special Collections are the exhibit guide and transcripts of interviews of retired Pullman employees and former Brotherhood members. Browse digitized copies of those materials and the finding aid for the collection. The interviews were conducted by historian Robert C. Hayden as part of the research process for the exhibit. The guide contains reproductions of each of the panels, as well as text written by the late historian and labor activist Dr. Jim Green that recounts the history of the Pullman porters leading up to the formation of the Brotherhood and the gains they made under Randolph’s leadership.

Though the statue, exhibit, and exhibit guide highlight the immense contributions of A. Philip Randolph through the Brotherhood, the interviews also provide rich insight into the lives of the railroad workers. Following the Civil War, there was a mass migration of newly freed Black Americans to northern cities. Job prospects were limited due to segregation and racism, which meant that the Black workforce quickly became one that was easily exploited as cheap labor, and Black workers were forced into a finite range of job positions. 

The Pullman Car Company, which had a virtual monopoly on the manufacture and operation of sleeper rail cars, took advantage of these circumstances by hiring an almost exclusively Black staff, from cooks to waiters to cleaners to porters. Wages were low and working conditions were poor, but it presented an opportunity to make a living for many who had few other choices. By the 1920s, the Pullman Company was the largest employer of Black labor in the United States.

Pullman porters made multiple failed attempts to organize before approaching A. Philip Randolph for his help. Under his leadership, the Brotherhood finally formed, with demands such as a 240-hour work month and a minimum monthly wage of $150. However, it wasn’t until more than a decade later in 1937 that the Pullman Company recognized the Brotherhood after a long battle attempting to bust the union. Randolph successfully negotiated many of their demands, and their victory made them the first national Black union to bargain effectively with a major company. 

Exhibit guide page with photos and quotes from the Pullman Porters interviews

The “Knights of the Rail” exhibit guide contains reproductions of the panels mounted at Back Bay Station. Each panel includes photographs and quotes from the interviews conducted by historian Robert C. Hayden.

The interviews showcase the variety of jobs employees on Pullman cars held. While the Brotherhood unionized the Pullman porters, there were other workers such as those in the dining cars who were not organized until later. The interviews provide details of daily life on the railroads, experienced through long hours on trips that took them away from home. Many appreciated the opportunity to travel and the steady job, while lamenting the fact that supporting their loved ones meant spending long periods of time away. Some recounted kind or reasonable supervisors, though they still experienced discrimination—if not from their employers then from the patrons they served. Others described the frequent lack of formal training, with some learning on the job with little to no former experience, whether it was as a cook or as an engine repair person. Overall, in spite of grievances or hardships, most stated that they enjoyed their jobs.

Along with diversity in job types, the workers themselves had diverse life experiences. The majority of the workers interviewed moved to the Boston area from Southern states, but Fidel S. Barboza, who worked first as a cook and then as a porter until he was laid off in 1957, was an immigrant from Mexico. Though he struggled because he did not speak English at first, he was considered a good worker and promoted several times. Frances E. Rideout, one of two women interviewed, described her time as a waitress. When she began working in the 1930s, it was rare for a woman to work on railroads, but over the course of her nearly four decades on Pullman cars, she did experience working with an all-woman crew.

Interviewer Robert C. Hayden and Dr. Jim Green, author of the exhibit guide, wrote in a joint article about the interviews that they “show that Randolph’s movement was composed of rank-and-file workers of many political persuasions, people who also deserve recognition.” They foreground the individual lives of those for whom the Brotherhood and later union organizations advocated. It provides these workers the ability to tell their own stories and ensure their personal experiences are included in the history of the larger movement.

Those who are interested in other relevant holdings in our University Archives and Special Collection may consult the James Green papers. Dr. Green taught history and labor studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston, creating and then directing its Public History graduate program. His papers cover nearly fifty years of research and activism among other kinds of materials and activities. Dr. Green also provided a video interview for the UMass Boston Mass. Memories Road Show on May 2, 2014, describing the activism he took part in on UMass Boston’s campus over the years.


References and further reading

“Pullman Porters Helped Build Black Middle Class.” NPR, 7 May 2009, www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=103880184

Green, James R. and Robert C. Hayden. “A. Philip Randolph and Boston’s African-American Railroad Worker.” Trotter Review, vol. 6, no. 2, 1992, 20-23. Internet Archive. Web. https://archive.org/details/trotterreview62willi/page/20/mode/2up.

McWatt, Arthur C. “‘A Greater Victory’: The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in St. Paul.” Minnesota History, vol. 55, no. 5, 1997, 202–216.

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Collections document history of the Vietnam War, local activism, and community groups

University Archives & Special Collections (UASC) in the Joseph P. Healey Library at the University of Massachusetts Boston is pleased to announce that six collections of previously unavailable archival material are now open for research. This is the fifth of a series of posts to announce newly available collections, toward the goal of making all of UASC’s collections, both processed and unprocessed, open for research. Collections that have not been processed, or that are minimally processed, will be made available upon request to researchers in approximately two to three weeks, depending on the size and complexity of the collection. Contact library.archives@umb.edu for more information.

To learn more about the collections that were made available this week, click the collection title in the list below.

  • Voice of Women records, 1962-1993: The Voice of Women organization was founded in 1960 to protest the Vietnam War and continued afterwards to advocate for disarmament. The organization collected materials related to other peace organizations in Massachusetts, and members conducted teach-ins, sit-ins, and protests in Newton and Boston. Peak activity was in the 1960s-1970s with women also running the Peace Boutique, a craft and gift shop of peace-related items that also served as a meeting place. These records document the interests and activities of the Voice of Women. Materials consist of reports, correspondence, notes, pamphlets, flyers, newsletters, correspondence, magazines, publications, clippings, and articles. Topics include Vietnam and other countries in conflict, such as Cambodia, as well as disarmament, peace movements, children and women in conflict zones, and American civilian and government official reactions.
  • Karen Turner Ho Chi Minh Trail papers, circa 1959-1999: Karen Turner is a historian at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. Her research interest developed during her time in college in the 1970s and focuses on the study of gender and its intersections with violence, particularly in the Vietnam War and published on topics relating to East Asia, and on gender in relation to law and politics.
    Two black and white photographs depicting Vietnamese women soldiers, date unknown

    Photographs from the Karen Turner Ho Chi Minh Trail papers, circa 1959-1999

    Karen Turner has made multiple trips to Vietnam and has conducted oral histories with women soldiers from the Vietnam War. These papers collected by Turner document the Ho Chi Minh Trail experience during the Vietnam War. Materials consist of translated manuscripts, photographs, and printouts. The images depict Vietnamese people during the Vietnam War, and the text describes the experiences of people there.

  • Coalition for Community Control of Development, 1986-2015: The Coalition for Community Control of Development (CCCD) was a local activist organization in the 1980s and 1990s with the goal of helping communities in Boston create ways to control the development of their neighborhoods. Some of the issues they helped address included tenant advocacy, strategies for helping communities organize, and environmental concerns within neighborhoods. One area of importance in which the CCCD helped communities strategize was how to advocate for or against real estate development. Materials consist of meeting records, articles, correspondence, notes, pamphlets, flyers, clippings, photographs, contact sheets, negatives, and questionnaires on topics relating to the organization, its activities, and the tenants and neighborhoods in Boston.
  • Dorchester Day ephemera, 1976-1988: Dorchester Day, also known as Dot Day, has been held since 1904 to celebrate the founding of the town of Dorchester in 1630. Typically held at the end of May through the first week of June, the event includes a parade, reenactment, banquet, road races, a doll carriage and bicycle contest, open house and flea market at Dorchester Historical Society, essay contest, soap box derby, and other events, along with vendors and speakers. The parade route typically begins on Dorchester Avenue at Pierce Square (Lower Mills) and ends at St. Margaret’s Church on Columbia Road and Dorchester Avenue.
    Two flyers advertising Dorchester Day, 1978

    Dorchester Day flyers, 1978

    These records document the Dorchester Day event’s programming and marketing activities. Materials consist of flyers, clippings and articles, programs, and rosters.

  • Monday Evening Club ledgers, 1906-1913: The Monday Evening Club met in Boston, Massachusetts, in the early twentieth century for the purpose of dinners with discussions on topics of interest, usually scientific, approved of by members. Materials consist of two ledgers kept by the secretary, including meeting minutes, both on club business and educational talks, and club information, such as voting in new members, costs of meetings, and officer ballots and voting.
  • Peace Action records, circa 1983-1993: Peace Action is a national grassroots organization composed of state and local groups, chapters, and affiliates. Massachusetts Peace Action began in the 1980s as Massachusetts FREEZE, and joined the Boston branch of SANE in 1987 at the same time as the national organization. The Boston chapter participated both on the local and national level in peace campaigns within Massachusetts and national political action towards disarmament and demilitarization under the direction of the organization’s national headquarters in Washington, D.C. Materials consist of meeting minutes, correspondence, publications, flyers, articles, clippings, and other supplementary materials relating to topics relevant to the organization, including nuclear war, military and political policies, demilitarization, disarmament, and other contemporary issues related to their peace-making campaigns.

For questions about these collections or to schedule a research appointment, please contact library.archives@umb.edu or 617-287-5469.


University Archives & Special Collections in the Joseph P. Healey Library at UMass Boston collects materials related to the university’s history, as well as materials that reflect the institution’s urban mission and strong support of community service, notably in collections of records of urban planning, social welfare, social action, alternative movements, community organizations, and local history related to neighboring communities.

University Archives & Special Collections welcomes inquiries from individuals, organizations, and businesses interested in donating materials of an archival nature that that fit within our collecting policy. These include manuscripts, documents, organizational archives, collections of photographs, unique publications, and audio and video media. For more information about donating to University Archives & Special Collections, click here or email library.archives@umb.edu.

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Collections document history of local jazz and the Boston Harbor Islands

University Archives & Special Collections (UASC) in the Joseph P. Healey Library at the University of Massachusetts Boston is pleased to announce that six collections of previously unavailable archival material are now open for research. This is the fourth of a series of posts to announce newly available collections, toward the goal of making all of UASC’s collections, both processed and unprocessed, open for research.

Black and white photograph from 1958 depicting radio announcer James Townsend Fitch standing with jazz musicians Clark Terry and Jimmy Ruching in front if a post with arrowed signs each labeled New Orleans, Kansas City, Chicago, and New York

John Townsend Fitch and jazz musicians Clark Terry and Jimmy Rushing, 1958

Collections that have not been processed, or that are minimally processed, will be made available upon request to researchers in approximately two to three weeks, depending on the size and complexity of the collection. Contact library.archives@umb.edu for more information.

To learn more about the collections that were made available this week, click the collection title in the list below.

  • Richard Vacca collection, 1939-2012, bulk 1949-1989: Richard Vacca is a writer, independent scholar, researcher, and the owner of Troy Street Publishing, through which he published his book, The Boston Jazz Chronicles: Faces, Places, and Nightlife 1937–1962. These records document the local jazz and blues scene in Boston and beyond. Materials consist of publications such as newsletters, magazines, and books, postcards, one cassette tape, and multiple LP sizes including 12”, 10” (78 RPM) and 7” (45 RPM).
  • John Townsend Fitch papers, 1951-2014, bulk 1951-1961: These records document the life and work of John Townsend Fitch. Fitch obtained a degree in engineering from MIT and went on to work as a radio announcer for WHDH. He became known for his jazz programs under the name of John McLellan from 1950-1961. Materials consist of manuscripts, notes and research, clippings, interviews, publications, certificates, correspondence, sheet music, and photographs of musicians and music during Fitch’s time as a radio and television host for jazz programs in Boston, Massachusetts.
  • Suzanne Gall Marsh Boston Harbor Islands collection, 1883-2017, bulk 1990-2017: In 1979, Marsh founded the Boston Harbor Islands Volunteer Corps, later called the Volunteers and Friends of the Boston Harbor Islands, and served as a board member. She has worked for the Boston Harbor Islands National and State Park as an interpreter and ranger and for Boston Harbor Cruises as a narrator. Marsh also teaches classes through the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at the University of Massachusetts Boston. This collection documents the Boston Harbor Islands and Suzanne Gall Marsh’s collecting interests around the islands. Materials consist of newspaper articles and clippings, photographs, negatives, contact sheets, reports, correspondence, notes, pamphlets, flyers, newsletters, magazines, books, and maps. Topics related to the Boston Harbor Islands include the waterways, wildlife and other environmental aspects of the islands, native peoples who inhabited the islands, tourism, advocacy, and the history of the islands.
  • Boston Harbor Islands Partnership records, 1998-2017: Created in 1996, the Boston Harbor Islands Partnership is an organization comprised of federal, city, state, and nonprofit agencies that coordinates the management of the Boston Harbor Islands. These records document the activities of the Boston Harbor Islands Partnership and include the management of the Boston Harbor Islands and the duties within the partnership and for the public. Materials consist of by-laws, minutes, reports, correspondence, notes, pamphlets, flyers, newsletters, clippings, and agendas.
  • Boston Harbor Islands Advisory Council records, 1997-2016: The Boston Harbor Islands Advisory Council began as a planning committee in 1997 and was officially founded in 1998 with the goal to advise and make recommendations to the Boston Harbor Islands Partnership. These records document the activities of the Boston Harbor Islands Advisory Council. Materials consist of by-laws, minutes, reports, plans, correspondence, notes, pamphlets, flyers, clippings, and articles. Topics addressed in the Advisory Council’s records include projects related to the Boston Harbor Islands Partnership, educational and recreational tourism, foundational information, historical and cultural information about the islands, and grant and financial information.
  • Boston Harbor Island and National Park and Recreation Area: National Park Services publications, 1994-2016: Originally established in the 1970s and designated as a National Park unit in 1996, the Boston Harbor Island National Recreation Area has been managed collaboratively by the Boston Harbor Islands Partnership with the aim to protect the islands, make them an integral part of the local communities, and improve public knowledge of and access to the islands as a recreational area.

For questions about these collections or to schedule a research appointment, please contact library.archives@umb.edu or 617-287-5469.

University Archives & Special Collections in the Joseph P. Healey Library at UMass Boston collects materials related to the university’s history, as well as materials that reflect the institution’s urban mission and strong support of community service, notably in collections of records of urban planning, social welfare, social action, alternative movements, community organizations, and local history related to neighboring communities.

University Archives & Special Collections welcomes inquiries from individuals, organizations, and businesses interested in donating materials of an archival nature that that fit within our collecting policy. These include manuscripts, documents, organizational archives, collections of photographs, unique publications, and audio and video media. For more information about donating to University Archives & Special Collections, click here or email library.archives@umb.edu.

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Mass. Memories Road Show heads to Nahant on Saturday, April 1

When: Saturday, April 1, 2017 | 10:00 am – 3:00 pm

Location: Nahant Town Hall | 334 Nahant Road | Nahant, Mass. | Click here for directions.

Do you have a connection to the Nahant, Massachusetts? Do you live or work in Nahant? Are your roots in Nahant? Share your memories and take your place in Massachusetts history at this free, public event.

Please bring 2-3 photographs in their original format (digital or print photographs) and your stories to be recorded. We will scan unframed pictures and copy digital images and return the images back to you. All images will be added to the online collection at openarchives.umb.edu.

Local support for the Nahant Memories Road Show is provided by the Nahant Public Library, 01908, Nahant Council on Aging, Nahant Historical Society, Nahant Public Schools, Nahant S.W.I.M. Inc., and Northeastern University Marine Science Center, with funding from the Friends of Nahant Public Library and Nahant Cultural Council.

The Mass. Memories Road Show is a statewide digital history project that documents people, places, and events in Massachusetts history through family photographs and stories. It is produced by the Joseph P. Healey Library at the University of Massachusetts Boston and is co-sponsored by the Patricia C. Flaherty ’81 Endowed Fund.

Download the flyer for the Nahant Mass. Memories Road Show here and remember to share it with your friends and family members!

Questions? Email carolyn.goldstein@umb.edu.

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Mass. Memories Road Show heads to Hyde Park on Saturday, May 14

Hyde Park MMRS flyer finalWhen: Saturday, May 14, 2016 | 10:00 am – 3:00 pm

Location: Hyde Park Community Center | 1179 River Street | Hyde Park, Mass. | Click here for directions.

Do you have a connection to the Hyde Park neighborhood of Boston, Massachusetts? Do you live or work in Hyde Park? Are your roots in Hyde Park? Share your memories and take your place in Massachusetts history at this free, public event.

Please bring 2-3 photographs in their original format (digital or print photographs) and your stories to be recorded. We will scan unframed pictures and copy digital images and return the images back to you. All images will be added to the online collection at openarchives.umb.edu.

Local support for the Hyde Park Mass. Memories Road Show is provided by the Friends of the Hyde Park Library, The Hyde Park Community Center, and Spin350 Creative. Learn more about the Hyde Park Mass. Memories Road Show here.

The Mass. Memories Road Show is a statewide digital history project that documents people, places, and events in Massachusetts history through family photographs and stories. It is produced by the Joseph P. Healey Library at UMass Boston and is co-sponsored by the Patricia C. Flaherty ’81 Endowed Fund.

Download the flyer for the Hyde Park Mass. Memories Road Show here and remember to share it with your friends and family members!

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