Junious “J.R.” Hughes made history in 1965 when he went to work as Norfolk and Western Railroad’s first black machinist, but the milestone wasn’t appreciated by some of his white co-workers.
One kept trying to bait him into fighting. Others quietly refused to train him for the tasks he needed to learn to move ahead. The company turned down his request for a leave of absence to go back to school but granted one to a young white man.
Yet when Hughes quit after two years, many of those same co-workers asked him not to leave, he said. And though his tenure was brief, there’s still a place in his heart 50 years later for his time with the railroad.
Hughes tells his story in “Cotton to Silk,” an oral history project organized for the Historical Society of Western Virginia by Floyd historian Sheree Scarborough. “Cotton to Silk” records the memories of 22 black employees of N&W, which later merged with Southern railways to form Norfolk Southern.
The subjects, mostly Roanoke natives, range from men such as Al Holland, who was hired as a janitor in 1938 and retired after more than four decades, to David Cobbs, Norfolk Southern’s current assistant vice president for diversity and equal opportunity employment.
“I hope that it will open people’s eyes to a part of history that they don’t even know about,” Cobbs said. “I just hope that even a fraction of what I’ve learned in this process can be imparted to the general public.”
Long in the making
Funded in part by a Virginia Foundation for the Humanities grant, “Cotton to Silk” will culminate in a book published by History Press. The Virginia Museum of Transportation will also expand its permanent exhibit, “African-American Heritage on the Norfolk and Western Railroad,” to share the stories Scarborough collected.
At this time, the exhibit in place doesn’t fully tell the story of the black workers, whose contributions have often been consigned to the background, said transportation museum historian Deena Sasser, who is redesigning the exhibit. “There was a lot of pride in it, even when they weren’t being noticed for their hard work.”
The book publication and exhibition are scheduled to coincide with the transportation museum’s African-American N&W Rail Heritage Celebration Day on June 21.
The genesis of “Cotton to Silk” began with the founding of the black N&W Heritage Group. This group of retired and current rail employees has been meeting at the transportation museum the first Tuesday of each month for about 19 years. Its founders include Holland, 97, former president of the Roanoke chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; the late Rev. Carl Tinsley; former Roanoke city councilman Carroll Swain, 86; and Hughes, 69, a pastor with Gospel Truth Ministries.
The transportation museum capitalized on the group’s insight into railroad history by opening a permanent oral history exhibition in 2000. The show came about as a response to appeals by members such as Swain, who noticed that up to that point the museum had just a handful of photos depicting black workers.
Members of the group talked about gathering their stories into a book, which would be named after one of Holland’s catchphrases.
“We took cotton and made silk,” Holland told The Roanoke Times in 2000.
In an interview for the new project, he elaborated on what he means. When he started work at N&W in 1938, racial discrimination barred him and other blacks from all but the most menial jobs. Yet the steady wages still opened doors for their families.
“That’s why I’m saying from ‘cotton to silk,’ ” he told Scarborough. “We took what we could get, and we made a life for ourselves.”
Even by the ugly standards of the Jim Crow era’s final decades, jobs with N&W were considered dependable, paying wages that would let black workers build a middle-class lifestyle for their families.
“Historically, blacks viewed railroad jobs as prize jobs,” said Ted DeLaney, a history professor at Washington and Lee University who’s a volunteer consultant for the project.
Since the first exhibit opened, several of the men who participated in it have died. Though the book remained under discussion for years, the resources to make it happen weren’t available until Holland discussed the project with his friend George Kegley, who runs the publishing arm of the historical society. In 2011, Kegley and Jeanne Bollendorf, the historical society’s executive director at the time, decided to move forward with assembling the book.
“We thought it would be a nice partnership with the transportation museum,” Bollendorf said.
The historical society hired Scarborough and won a grant that covered costs of research, the transcriptions of the interviews and the writing of the book.
“They’ve been talking about a book since that exhibit went up in 2000,” Scarborough said, “so it’s humbling to be the one to help make that happen.”
Laying track — and groundwork
DeLaney is writing the book’s introduction to provide some additional historical context.
“There’s a lot of back story happening that these interviews don’t tell,” he said.
For example, a 1946 U.S. Supreme Court decision ended segregation by race on interstate transportation more than a decade before the court would take up other, better known civil rights cases. Many Southern states ignored the ruling, which laid the groundwork for the Freedom Rides undertaken by activists in the 1960s.
N&W was directly affected by the ruling and seemed receptive to the required changes, DeLaney said. However, removing the dividing line in the workforce took longer.
“The railroads are an important way that the Virginia economy is reconstructed and rebuilt after the Civil War,” attracting investors to Virginia, he said. “Labor is very segregated during those days. People laying track are largely black men. That’s really hard labor. As we come closer to the future, the jobs become integrated jobs.”
The experiences changed from generation to generation. Swain, who worked at various times as a dining car cook and a baggage handler before quitting in frustration, makes no secret of his anger.
“I’m unhappy at the way people were treated,” he said. “I know it’s still not right. There’s a glass ceiling out there that needs to be broken.”
One of the most touching aspects of the interviews, Scarborough said, was listening to the subjects talk about watching the trains as children and telling their mothers how they dreamed of being engineers — jobs that at the time weren’t open to blacks.
Yet some, such as Holland, who started in 1938 and stayed on till 1985, witnessed those dreams coming true for some black men.
“We had to take what we had down here because we weren’t going to get those jobs. But I lived to see them get it,” he told Scarborough.
The hardships Swain, Hughes and others went through opened doors for those who came after.
“They laid the groundwork for the rest of us,” said John Nutter, 65, a retired Norfolk Southern engineer. “They were pillars of the community. A lot of those guys mentored us growing up.”
Nutter grew up with ambitions to be an engineer, and didn’t find the obstacles his predecessors did when the railroad hired him in 1987.
“I came to Norfolk Southern from Greyhound,” he said. “I wanted to drive trucks, I wanted to drive a bus and I wanted to run the engine, and I finally got to do all of that.”
During the project, Scarborough added black women employed by Norfolk Southern to her list of interviewees.
“We’re trying to make the stories more diverse,” she said.
Brenda Powell, 60, has worked in information technology for Norfolk Southern since the days computers used punch cards. Her father was a baggage handler for N&W and loved his job.
She had travails of her own. In her interview with Scarborough, Powell describes repeatedly encountering people — co-workers and otherwise — who refused to believe she was a member of management until she showed them her badge.
Cobbs, the Norfolk Southern executive, gave an oral history interview describing how he first worked for the railroad by spending the summer of 1977 laying track. A college student considering a law school career, he found the work brutal, and his mother panicked when she saw him after his first day on the job because he was in so much pain. But he stayed on after he found out the veteran workers were taking bets on whether or not he would quit.
After graduating, Cobbs returned to the railroad to take a management job. He went to Buffalo, N.Y., where he experienced a different kind of culture shock.
“By the time I was finished with college the South was pretty well integrated,” he said. But in Buffalo, “I was the only black employee for the railroad at that yard.”
In 2014, the company has three black vice presidents.
“The railroad is a microcosm of society,” Cobbs said, but in terms of diversity among its employees, “I don’t think there’s a glass ceiling per se anymore.”
Cobbs noted that an important aspect of “Cotton to Silk” is what it shows, in a positive light, about the whites who did the hiring.
“For every Al Holland who was hired, there was some white person who said, ‘I’m giving you a shot,’ ” he said. “This is not just African-American history, this is everybody’s history.”