OGDEN — As the 150th anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental railroad is celebrated this week, members of Northern Utah’s black community say there’s a stark historical reality that should be thoughtfully appraised.
And it’s that the line never would have been built or flourished without their ancestors’ contributions.
Betty Sawyer, Community Engagement Coordinator in Access and Diversity at Weber State University, gave a presentation to the Ogden City Council Tuesday night, discussing the role blacks played in building the railroad and in keeping it running years after.
Sawyer was also involved in a reception and discussion on the topic that took place at the Union Station in April. She said black slaves — exploited as they were — played an integral role in the actual physical construction of the nearly 2,000-mile rail line that connected the United States and forever changed the world.
“African Americans were part of the railroad experience while they were still enslaved in this country,” Sawyer said Tuesday. “A large majority of those workers, prior to the Civil War, were African Americans in those southern and some of the eastern states that were part of building the railroad. Virtually every railroad that was built in the south during the 19th century was built using slave labor.”
After the Civil War, newly freed blacks continued to work on the railroad, Sawyer said, but never at a fair wage and never under favorable conditions.
“Whites were paid a certain amount and had certain privileges, the Chinese were paid a certain amount and had lesser privileges, immigrants were paid a certain amount,” she said. “But blacks were the least paid and had the least privileges. They also got physical whoopings.”
And the black influence on the railroad continued long after Central Pacific Railroad President Leland Stanford drove the last spike at Promontory Summit in 1869.
According to Sarah Singh, Weber State University Special Collections curator, the black presence on the railroad continued with the increase in passenger rail travel. American industrialist and engineer George Pullman created Pullman sleeping cars and hired blacks to work as porters and waiters on the trains.
In a guest column in the Standard-Examiner, Singh said the cars accommodated 26 million people a year during its peak in the early 20th century. The porters and waiters provided service to the travelers, including meals and bed turndowns, she said.
Sawyer said the waiters and porters accounted for a good percentage of the “tens of thousands” of blacks who continued to work for the railroad after the transcontinental line was finished. She said the railroad experience helped blacks build a sustainable community here in Ogden.
WSU history professor and Director of Public History Kathryn MacKay said jobs in the passenger train service sector eventually paid decent wages and provided health care and pensions.
“Ogden remained a place where (black) families could live,” MacKay said.
Ogden Mayor Mike Caldwell thanked Sawyer for her presentation at Tuesday’s council meeting and noted the importance of remembering the entire story of the railroad this week.
“I hope everybody has some sensitivity for what actually was done and on whose backs it was accomplished,” Caldwell said.