ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — It’s a piece of history that isn’t well known – at least in New Mexico. But Thomas Lark is looking to change that.
Lark is the curator at the African American Performing Arts Center at Expo New Mexico. And the latest offering from the center, “Working on the Rails: African Americans and Domestic Train Service,” will be on exhibit through Sept. 29.
Lark says the exhibit is mainly about African Americans and their early careers on trains. The exhibit is considered a “flat” exhibit, meaning that the majority of it is text and photos.
“There weren’t very many relics that could be saved during that time,” he explains. “Many of the African Americans that worked on the trains were away from their homes for a long time and had nowhere to store items.”
Lark says the exhibit tells the stories of the experiences and the legacy of the Pullman Porters and the thousands of black railroad workers involved in rail car maintenance, baggage assistance, food service and room service on the trains.
Pullman Porters were men, many of them African Americans, hired by George Pullman to work on the railroads as porters on sleeping cars, which he created. Starting shortly after the Civil War, Pullman was known to seek out former slaves to work on his sleeper cars.
Lark says while the number of pieces in the display is small, there is a film that accompanies the exhibit.
“The film is a great assistance because you can hear the stories straight from the dining car waiters and the handlers,” he says. “It gives an idea of what sort of opportunities and experiences these workers were dealing with.”
Lark says beyond the stylish interiors of the Pullman car – and the luxury and comforts provided by blacks – these moments in time for the Pullman Porters portray a human story of racism and exploitation.
“But it also represents the quiet struggles, new strategies for improvement and union options to create better future for blacks,” he explains. “When the union was created, the workers only wanted a better future for themselves.”
After the Civil War, Lark says, the porter jobs represented full employment and steady work for blacks when there were few jobs for African Americans.
He says the porters also were required to work a minimum of 400 hours a month and travel all over the country at a moment’s notice.
“They also had to pay for their own suits and uniforms and had no opportunity for promotion or no permanent sleeping quarters,” he says. “They also had to come in early and set up the sleeper quarters and lay out and prepare the area for guests.”
It was these poor working conditions that led to the formation of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in 1925. Under the union, conditions and pay got better.
Lark says in New Mexico, African Americans were in the state as Buffalo Soldiers between 1886 and 1891, and many of them retired here. As railroads arrived in New Mexico in the 1880s, they and others who would arrive by train would find work and set up small businesses and founded Blackdom, which is now a ghost town 18 miles south of Roswell.
“Many of the African Americans that settled did so in places where there was less prejudice,” he says. “But these businesses thrived. Places like Las Cruces were perfect because they were located close to Fort Stanton and many of the Buffalo Soldiers wanted to remain close to military.”
“Working on the Rails” has been up for a couple months, and Lark says there has been positive feedback from the community.