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AMTRAK: History rides the rails

The past is not dead. It’s not even past. — William Faulkner, 1897-1962

History is not static. A nation’s past can move you, literally. For black Americans, a rail vacation can take you deep into your own heritage.

Earlier this spring, Amtrak trotted out a special exhibit in Philadelphia on The Great Migration, the movement of millions of black Americans out of the rural South to the industrial North.

It was meant to celebrate National Train Day, but the response was so great that Amtrak is bringing it back — first to Washington DC and later to Baltimore.

You can read all about the exhibit and how it came about in the Washington Post story here.

The exhibit’s a fine idea — as far as it goes — but it doesn’t actually go anywhere.

With a little bit of planning, however, this is one piece of black American history that can literally take you places.

America’s Great Migration of African-Americans came basically in two waves. The first took place between 1910 and 1930. The second began with World War 2 and didn’t end until about 1970.

My own family was involved in both, and as a kid, I experienced the second one myself.

In the first one, my ancestors, including some ex-slaves, left the farms of Mississippi for urban New Orleans.

When American industry began gearing up for World War 2, a good year of so before Pearl Harbor, millions of working-age black men saw their chance and went for it, traveling both north and west.

That’s how my Uncle Curly ended up in Oakland, CA, taking the old Key System trains across the Bay Bridge to work in the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard in San Francisco.

Two decades later, he’d join the crew that built the Oakland Coliseum.

In the 1950s, my mother followed Uncle Curly to Oakland, and brought me with her. By train.

It couldn’t have been easy to leave everyone and everything that you knew, even if what you knew wasn’t all that great, and move across a continent with little more than hope and a willingness to work your butt off.

That took more “heart” than your typical gangsta rapper knows anything about.

It also took something currently in short supply in this country — a stubborn optimism and abiding faith that no matter what, you could still better your life.

Today, you can retrace those journeys via three different Amtrak trains — all of which, coincidentally, originate in New Orleans.

One is the Crescent, which swings north and east from New Orleans to New York. The second is the Spirit of New Orleans, celebrated in song by Arlo Guthrie, that follows the Mississippi River north from the “Crescent City” to Chicago.

Last but not least is the Sunset Limited, which runs west from New Orleans to Los Angeles.

(My family’s migration path required a fourth train, the Coast Starlight, from LA to Oakland.)

I can’t tell you much about my trip on the City of New Orleans to Chicago. I pretty much slept through it.

What do you want from me; I was four years old.

Chicago looked and felt like science fiction. Never mind Carl Sandburg’s “big shoulders,” this was some kind of sprawling, hulking universe. An energetic, powerful, we-ain’t-playin’ kind of place. Even the amusement rides loomed over me.

The only things that seemed to come down to my level were the fireflies.

What kind of town was this, where even the insects were electrified? Did they plug into the wall during the day to recharge?

The Sunset Limited was next. This time, I was determined not to sleep.

Eventually, I did, of course, but I saw more than enough to get me hooked forever on travel.

Many years later, I finally followed the path of the Crescent through the Deep and Dirty South — Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia, into DC.

I’d grown up with the Civil Rights movement. The televised images of the Freedom Riders and Selma were all burned into my mind. Cross burnings. Church bombings. Medgar Evers, Schwerner, Cheney and Goodman, Viola Liuzzo on one side of history. George Wallace, Lester Maddox and Bull Connor on the other.

A lot has changed for the better since those days. Not everything, but a lot. Still, a part of me felt as if I were riding through not just my ancestral home, but what once had been enemy territory.

You can still ride the routes of the Great Migration — from Bay St. Louis, MS to St. Louis, MO, from Camden, SC to Camden, NJ, and scores of other stops along the way.

You can see the places your ancestors came from, and arrive in their new worlds as they did. And you’ll arrive in better shape than many, because a lot if those original journeys weren’t on passenger trains. They were in freight cars.

Think about that as you ease your reclining seat back after returning from dinner and drinks in the dining car.

We tend to think of history as a textbook, a statue, a museum — static, silent, dead. That’s not history. That’s just our approach to it.

History lives, with lessons to teach and stories to tell. It lives in your very DNA, in the collective memories of your elders, in scrapbooks packed with yellowed newspaper clippings and fading photographs with smudged notes scribbled on the back.

And because Amtrak survives, it still rides the rails of these United States.

Look closer at that pic up there at the folks waiting in “Colored Waiting Room” in some American train station. Everybody “suited and booted,” men and women alike, dressed to the nines. Wonder what they’d think about today’s kids “sagging,” with their “pants on the ground” and their butts hanging out?

2 thoughts on “AMTRAK: History rides the rails”

  1. Really interesting read, thanks Greg. I didn’t realise that there was such mass migration, and on freight trains no less. It’s great that Amtrak commemorates social history like this, I just hope it doesn’t become consigned to history itself!

    • Thanks, Jools…and you’re right. Amtrak’s own survival is an amazing story in itself. I’d love to see it hold on long enough to enter the high-speed rail era, which is to say, I’d love to see Amtrak enter the 20th century!

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