Pacific Northwest Racism – Black Death and the Railroad
Like so many other places, the Pacific Northwest has its share of racist secrets — secrets that were, and still are, spoken about in private. I am convinced that there are times when some secrets should be told in order to educate and remind us of the dangers and ugliness of racism.
Yes, I do believe that some secrets should remain secrets; however, this is one truly discomforting secret that BlackParentSpeaks has chosen to share with the readers of BlackAngryWomen. This is the telling of a horrendous and tragic secret that involved racist Whites and the courageous Blacks who worked on the railroad c.1940s – 1960s.
I have always respected and looked up to my daddy, always. Daddy was the epitome of what a man, father, husband, and protector should be. Daddy was a Black man. Daddy was highly respected and trusted by fellow Blacks: men, women, and children.
One day, when I was still but a young child, Daddy sat me down in the music room of our big house and talked to me about my tendency of ‘putting him on a pedestal’.
Daddy explained that no man should ever be put on a pedestal and he went into great detail as to why…. That was the day I was ‘allowed in’ by my father – a ‘former’ porter on the railroad.
Daddy said that I needed to know — it might help me to know the truth as I grew in wisdom and knowledge. That day, Daddy revealed to me what had happened to a fellow Black porter on the train and why he, my Daddy, had early-on quit the railroad.
My father — like many of the Black men here in Portland, Oregon — worked for the railroad during earlier days. Daddy’s stint as a porter on the train had, by choice(?), been short-lived….
My recollection of what I was told by my father follows:
Daddy explained that a White woman had openly stated that she wanted to have a sexual encounter with a particular Black porter on the train. The White woman had indicated that the Black porter ‘met her fancy’. Needless to say, the Black porter ‘of her fancy’ was not interested.
My father and the other Black porters who were working on the train quickly discussed the situation. They knew there was ‘danger’ in the White woman’s desires. All of the Black porters agreed that it was best for that particular Black porter to switch places with one of them who had not met the White woman’s fancy.
Daddy and the other Black porters were keenly aware of the White woman’s anger as they politely listened to her racist words directed at all of them. As the White woman’s anger intensified, ‘word’ soon traveled to all of the Black porters that the White woman had spoken to a White employee of the railroad.
What followed was horrific and I – to this day – continue to shed tears for all of the Black men who were there. Their lives and other lives were changed in ways that words can never convey.
At an UNscheduled stop, the train came to a halt. All of the train’s Black employees were ordered to get off the train. Outside the train was a White mob carrying shotguns and more. One of the White men in the mob identified himself as law enforcement. Several of the White men had ‘restrained’ vicious dogs while others carried shovels.
The train’s Black employees were ordered at gunpoint to take the shovels and dig. The hate-filled racist voices from the White mob grew louder and louder and all kinds of ugly language and comments were shouted at my father and the other Blacks. The train’s Black employees did as they were ordered to do.
Eventually, the Black men were told to stop digging. Soon after, one of the train’s White employees stepped forth with the White woman whose sexual advances had not been reciprocated. The White woman was asked to identify the Black porter who had, according to her, attempted to sexually advance on her.
The White woman pointed to one of the Black porters and that porter was ordered — at gunpoint — to jump into the hole that he and the other Blacks had dug. Protests and denials meant nothing to the White mob as they lunged at the Black man and fired shots in the direction of my father and the other Blacks.
Once the identified Black porter was standing upright in the hole, my father and the other Black men were ordered to fill the hole in with dirt. Again, shots were fired and the still-restrained dogs continued to bark viciously.
When the dirt covered all but the neck and head of the Black man in the hole, the Black employees were ordered to stop filling in the hole with dirt and to step aside. At that point, the restraints on the wild dogs were loosened by their White handlers. The dogs wildly charged at the man in the hole and proceeded to rip-off and chew at the head of the Black porter who had been identified by the White woman.
My Black father and the other Blacks who worked on the train that day were forced to watch. My Black father and the other Blacks listened to and heard the agonizing screams and cries coming from their fellow Black porter – their friend.
Following what seemed like an eternity to my Dad, my father and the other Black employees on the train were ordered to completely finish filling in the hole. Daddy and the other Black employees were told that if they ever told what happened to anyone, they would meet a similar fate.
(BlackParentSpeaks must pause now to wipe away the tears and to offer up a cry to God and our Black ancestors….)
Being so young, I asked my father why he did not do something – why didn’t he speak up and stop the Whites from doing what they did? Daddy explained that the Whites (including the White employee of the railroad) already knew that the Black porter had not done what the White woman had claimed. Daddy said that there was nothing that he or any of the other Blacks could have done….
Daddy said that he and the other Black employees of the railroad made a pact to remain silent upon their return. He explained that the Black man had a family here at home and that they, the Black porters, agreed to simply say that the man ran away with other women along the train’s route.
I have thought about and wrestled with that secret for many many years. I have thought about that Black man and all of the Black lives that were destroyed and damaged that day. I have wondered how many other Black men ‘supposedly’ ran away while working on the railroad.
My father chose to quit the railroad. My father maintained his silence about what occurred as did the other Blacks who worked on the railroad.
I was allowed ‘in’ on the secret and it seems that the other Blacks who worked the railroad felt a degree of peace knowing that I, too, knew the secret. Over the years, I listened to and learned from the Blacks who worked on the railroad – sometimes they spoke of that and other racist incidents they endured as Black employees.
Please be advised that for Blacks ‘working on the railroad’ came at a real price. Both remaining employed and quitting took true strength.
BlackParentSpeaks dedicates this writing to the memory of all of our strong Black men and women who worked on the railroad during the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s….
Undying love for Black people!
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‘Don’t forget our reparations’.
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