This Month in History – African Americans Working on the Railroad

For many decades, African American history was downplayed by scholars and society. Today, historians value looking at the lives of men like Haywood Wesley Sampson so that we can better understand the past.

Haywood Sampson was born in Duplin County in the late 19th century. He moved to Wilmington in the 1910s, at a time when legally sanctioned racial segregation permeated society. Mr. Sampson was hired by the Atlantic Coastline railroad in the late 1910s. His daughter, Margaret S. Rogers, recalled in the 1980s, “My father, Haywood Sampson, was fond of telling me how he started working for the railroad in 1917 carrying wood. He then worked his way up to fireman, first on the coal burners and finally, before retiring, to diesel engines.” Sampson was unable to read or write, but he successfully held his job for decades.

There is a long history of Black southerners working for the railroads. In Wilmington in 1850—when the railroads were just beginning to grow as an industry—the Wilmington and Raleigh Railroad enslaved more than 200 men. This made the company the largest enslaver in New Hanover County. After the Civil War, African Americans continued to work in a range of jobs on southern railroads. The job Haywood Sampson held—that of a railroad fireman—was a relatively prestigious job in the railroading hierarchy. Railroad firemen helped the locomotive engineer run the train’s engine.  In the era of steam engines, the fireman’s work was physically hard, dirty, and skilled all at the same time. Fireman needed to be strong to shovel coal or wood, and they needed to be skilled in managing the fire in the locomotive’s engine so that it created enough steam to power the train.

In the early 20th century in the North, railroad unions made the job a whites-only job.  Northern fireman often worked their way up and became locomotive engineers. On southern railroads, Black firemen could not become locomotive engineers. So being a railroad fireman was as high in the hierarchy as an African American man could rise. Although African American firemen like Mr. Sampson were barred from advancing to the top job, working as a railroad fireman was considered very desirable. The job was relatively well-paid, skilled, and secure. In the context of the times—where segregation and racism were a barrier to promotion and opportunity—it makes a lot of sense that Haywood Sampson worked for the railroad for more than four decades.

Click here to see more images of Mr. Sampson and his family.

 


Previous Columns

January 2021: January 9, 1861
December:
Holiday Gifts
November:
November 11, 1918 – Armistice is Signed
October:
Fire Prevention Week, October 8 through 14, 1972
September:
Neal Thomas’s One-Man Show, September 13, 1958
August:
August 26, 1920 – the Women’s Suffrage Amendment is officially ratified 
July:
July 15, 1977, One Short March, One Long Journey
June:
D-Day, Henry Jay MacMillan, and World War II
May:
Firestarter Premieres on College Road
April:
The Kenan Memorial Fountain gets a facelift, April 14, 2005
March:
Lethia Sherman Hankins
February:
The Great Fire of 1886
January 2020:
Cape Fear Museum gets a new home, January 18, 1992
December:
The Catherine Kennedy Home: a longstanding local institution
November:
Taft Day, November 9, 1909
October:
The Daily Record, October 20, 1898
September:
September 15, 1990
August:
Honoring “Hi Buddy” Wade on his 90th Birthday
July:
July 15, 1977, One Short March, One Long Journey
June:
The USS North Carolina lands a Kingfisher, June 25, 1971
May:
May is Prom Season, May 12, 1962
April: 
Income Tax Deadline Day
March: 
Women’s History Month, March 8
February: 
A February Fundraiser, 2008
January 2019: 
Voting for Liquor by the Drink, January 12, 1979


Haywood Sampson’s railroad pass
1983.051.0002
Gift of Margaret S. Rogers

Certificate of Achievement
1983.051.0003
Gift of Margaret S. Rogers

Group of Atlantic Coast Line Railroad workers
2006.081.0038
Museum purchase
814 Market Street • Wilmington, NC 28401 • Phone 910-798-4370 • Fax 910-798-4382
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