Building the U.S. railroads: Enslaved African descent forced laborers

Building the U.S. railroads with enslaved African descent forced laborers

Americans often here about the labor used to build the Transcontinental Railroad and the great contributions of Chinese laborers, many who came to the United States by choice.

White Americans have been given the glory of building the U.S. railroads. None of the 20,000 or so Chinese immigrants, who were paid to worked on the Transcontinental Railroad, were typically included in the celebratory 1869 photos.

Built between 1863 and 1869, the Transcontinental Railroad extended the existing eastern railway network, from outside Omaha, Nebraska, to Oakland, California. Western Pacific built the line from Oakland to Sacramento, Central Pacific from Sacramento to Utah, and Union Pacific from the eastern terminus to Utah.

Central Pacific turned to Chinese immigrants, an interested and available workforce. About 12,000 to 15,000 Chinese — many of whom hailed from impoverished Guangdong province near Hong Kong — worked for the railroad company at any one time, but due to turnover and unclear records, the exact number is unknown.

Leland Stanford, president of Central Pacific, former California governor and founder of Stanford University, told the U.S. Congress in 1865, that the majority of the railroad labor force were Chinese. “Without them,” he said, “it would be impossible to complete the western portion of this great national enterprise, within the time required by the Acts of Congress.”

More Chinese immigrants began arriving in California, and two years later, about 90 percent of the workers were Chinese.

These Asian immigrants played a crucial role in finishing the railroad, performing hard, dangerous work for long hours at low wages that were one-half to two-thirds of what their white counterparts were earning. Afterward, some returned to China, but many found work in other trades or continued to work on railroad lines throughout the United States.

Chinese workers hired in 1864 were paid $26 a month, working six days a week.

They eventually held an eight-day strike in June of 1867.

“Chinese received 30-50 percent lower wages than whites for the same job and they had to pay for their own food stuffs,” Gordon Chang says. “They also had the most difficult and dangerous work, including tunneling and the use of explosives. There is also evidence they faced physical abuse at times from some supervisors. They protested these and the long hours and they used their collective strength to challenge the company.” Gordon Chang, Stanford professor of American history and author of the book, Ghosts of Gold Mountain.
Railroads: What about the forced enslaved labor by African descent people
Why is there little discussion regarding the railroads built east of the Mississippi River or in Texas?

This is a part of the needed conversations related to reparations for enslavement and Jim Crow and why the federal government has not moved forward.

H.R.40 has 147 Democratic co-sponsors in the U.S. House of Representatives, and was originally introduced in January 2019. Republicans, however, have shown forceful opposition to the bill. Now, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) in 2019 said it was not a good idea to impose reparations “for something that happened 150 years ago, for whom none of us currently living are responsible.”

The first time the federal government considered reparations for African descent people was in 1865.

In 1989, the late Congressman John Conyers Jr., who retired in 2017 and died in 2019, introduced legislation to create a commission to develop proposals for reparations. Conyers introduced it every year for nearly 30 years. It went nowhere. Even President Barack Obama opposed reparations, calling the idea impractical.

H.R.40, titled the “Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act,” is now sponsored by Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, Democrat of Texas.

In 2019, the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties held a hearing on the subject of reparations for the descendants of enslaved African descent people and Jim Crow in the United States. The commission had the support of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

The New York Times reported on June 18, 2019 that aside from Senator Booker, several other Democratic presidential aspirants have expressed support for some form of reparations, including Beto O’Rourke, Sen. Kamala Harris, (D-Calif.), Sen. Elizabeth Warren, (D-Mass.), and former Secretary of Housing and Urban Affairs Julián Castro.

Currently, the United States judicial system and the U.S. Senate are dealing with if it actually wants to hold accountable all of those who took part in an acts of sedition and insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021 or to allow most of these domestic terrorist to plot and plan again. Meanwhile, America’s most loyal citizens, African Americans have to wait to see if reparations will have a serious discussion in congress for if president Joe Biden will issue and executive order to once and for all resolve the issue of reparations to heal America completely.

Railroads construction with forced labor and transportation of enslaved people as commerce via the railroads
This is a brief look back at the building of some of the U.S. railroads with enslaved African descent forced labor. 

These few historical newspaper articles give an example of the economic impact of the railroads to move goods, products and enslaved African descent people as commerce. The articles also show the economic importance of using enslaved African descent people as forced construction labor to building the railroads.

Many of these earlier predecessor railroads corridors, tracks and predecessor railroad companies are now part of the modern major railroad companies in the United States today.

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Southern Railway
Southern Railway was a class 1 railroad based in the Southern United States between 1894 and 1982, when it merged with the Norfolk & Western to form Norfolk Southern creating what is now Norfolk Southern Railway.

Norfolk Southern


Reparations: Martin Luther King Jr. , Barack Obama and America’s apology

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