Union History

Evolution of Employment on the Railroad

African-Americans in US Railroad History

During slavery, companies purchased slaves to work on the railroads. For example, it is RailroadWorkers2documented that as early as 1838, a southern railroad company purchased 140 slaves for $159,000 to work on the construction of a railroad line in Mississippi. There were many slaves on the southern plantations who did more than agricultural work and manual labor in the fields. Some slaves were highly skilled as coopers, carpenters, mechanics, cabinetmakers, and masons. Many slave owners trained their slaves in these trades so that they could be hired out or sold for a higher price. There is scant documentation available to estimate the true numbers of slaves employed on the railroads. However, it is possible and likely that there were thousands of skilled tradesman and manual laborers used in the construction of the many miles of American railroad.

CivilWarFighting for Freedom

Civil War Soldiers

When Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation Act in 1863, the United States had made few provisions for the future employment of freed slaves. As a result, former slaves who left the plantations found limited opportunities other than those to which they had become accustomed: manual labor in the fields and factories or domestic positions such as cleaners, cooks, and servants. The newly found wealth generated by the Industrial Revolution increased the availability of such jobs.