"Workin' on the Railroad": African American Labor History

By Maher, Rebecca | Social Education, September 2004 | Go to article overview

"Workin' on the Railroad": African American Labor History


Maher, Rebecca, Social Education


IN THE SPRING OF 2003 I worked with a team of eighth grade teachers at Asheville Middle School in North Carolina on a project that combined fine art, music, the history of the railroads, and the African American experience in our state and nation. (1) In my classroom, students interviewed a retired train conductor, who was African American, to learn about his work environment before and after desegregation. They watched and discussed a video made by older students at nearby Owen High School about the role of African Americans in laying the railroad tracks in Buncombe County, North Carolina. Finally, they learned about the life and works of three African American artists who depicted their society during the first half of the twentieth century and created a work of art (in the style of the times) that drew upon the many things that they had learned in this unit of study.

The Students and the Curriculum

Asheville Middle School is an urban school located in downtown Asheville, which is in the Appalachian Mountains of western North Carolina. According to statistics gathered in Asheville City Schools, the Asheville Middle School population of about 800 students is approximately 48 percent white, 43 percent African American, and 4 percent Hispanic, the remainder being Asian, American Indian, and mixed ethnicity. Almost half of the student population receives a free or reduced lunch (which is a commonly used measure of poverty). My eighth grade class had nine Anglo, three African American, and one Hispanic students. There were nine boys and four girls, and four out of the thirteen students had serious disabilities. The class met five days per week for forty-five minute periods.

In North Carolina public schools, "eighth grade students examine the role of North Carolina in the history of the American nation.... [They] place the state within the context of the larger national history since our state, as one of the original thirteen, has shared the entirety of the national experience." (2) I am an art teacher, but my students did much more than work with images and paint. In conjunction with the social studies teacher, I prepared lessons about the Underground Railroad and how the slaves used symbols in quilts to communicate their unspoken thoughts. (3) We studied the Civil Rights movement and how higher-paying jobs slowly opened up for African Americans over the course of the 1900s. We also talked about the Civil Rights movement as it developed at the local and state, as well as national level. When we came to study the biographies and paintings of three African American artists, students had the historical background to "connect the dots," to appreciate the threads of meaning and experience that go into the making of a true work of art.

An Interdisciplinary Unit of Study

While I was integrating language arts, social studies, and music into my art lessons, the eighth grade social studies/language arts teacher and the chorus director were integrating art into their lessons. All of us focused on local railroad history from an African American perspective during a unit of study that spanned four weeks. We met regularly to discuss our integrated lessons and share resources.

The social studies/language arts teacher had the students design a timeline that noted key events of railroad history. She invited a retired railroad worker into her classroom to talk about his experiences in the mid 1960s and 1970s, which included protesting poor working conditions for African American railroad workers. She also engaged students in writing poetry based on the experiences of people living at the time.

The chorus director choreographed a performance in which students recreated some of the sights and sounds of the railroad work gang. The chorus, dressed in pin-stripped overalls and caps, tapping with sticks the size of ax-handles, performed at a school assembly and the nearby YMI Cultural Center. …

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