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Cotton to Silk

An oral history project and a soon-to-be released book tell the story of African American Heritage on the Roanoke-based Norfolk and Western Railroad.

The memories are those of 20 retired and current black employees of N&W, which later became Norfolk Southern.

The railroad was a microcosm of America itself—and the stories illustrate the momentum of equal opportunity.

Oral historian Sheree Scarborough has been running on tight deadlines.

Several of the people she interviewed for her Cotton to Silk oral history project and book are nearing 100 years old…and memories are fading.

Their stories bridge American history from the Jim Crow era to today’s more diverse workplace.

“They started as janitors, track laborers, porters, waiters, baggage handlers and they couldn’t go above a certain level in the company.”

Al Holland worked for the railroad for 46 years, beginning as a janitor in 1938.  His story is the inspiration for the project’s title.

Credit Photo: Art Sellers
Al Holland, 2013

"I built a house on 62 cents an hour. A cinder block stucco, $9500. My notes were $40 a month.  I walked to work, I couldn’t afford a house and a car at the same time. That’s why I’m saying ‘from cotton to silk,’ we took what we could get, and we made a life for ourselves.”

Their collective story is a series of firsts, with the way paved by the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

“The corporation began to change, the laws changed, and they could then bid on jobs such as clerks, management positions, to engineers, locomotives engineers, conductors all those positions were denied the earlier generations. There are now Vice Presidents who are African American.”

Credit Photo: Art Sellers
J.R. Hughes, 2014

Junious Hughes worked as the first black machinist for Norfolk & Western….but he tells the story of his father, a  porter for the railway.

“He’d come home from work sometimes, totally frustrated… because some little Caucasian kid, his daddy got him a job on the railroad. He would have to come to my father to learn how to be my father’s boss.  The lowest jobs, those were the jobs that blacks could get. My daddy wasn’t a bitter man, but he was affected by it.  A young kid, but because of the color of his skin, my daddy had to train him to be his supervisor.”

Scarborough also talked with Reverend Carl Tinsley, who has since passed away.  He worked at the railroad from the mid 50s to the mid 90s. and recalls his decision to bid on a better-paying job in the Freight Traffic Department after the laws changed.

Credit Photo: Art Sellers
Carl Tinsley, 2013

“I said I want that job, because I had seniority. He said ‘I don’t know if they’ll let you go,” and I said, “I’ll tell you what, if he don’t I’m going to be the richest black man in town, because I’m going to sue you.’ I got the job and went to work the next day.”

And in the years following, Tinsley went on to help other African Americans apply for jobs.

There are many partners in the Cotton to Silk project, from the Historical Society of Western Virginia, to the Virginia Museum of Transportation with its own expanding exhibit on African Americans and the railroad….to the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities which helped in funding, and of course, Norfolk Southern, sharing the archives with Scarborough.

Credit Photo: Art Sellers
Sheree Scarborough, Oral Historian

“It’s the story of opening doors and equal opportunity. It’s the story of resilience triumphing over difficult odds, the story of a people who were denied access and stuck in there and who are now at the top of this company.”

The History Museum of Western Virginia will host an online exhibit of the oral histories, posted later this spring. The book, published by History Press, comes out in June.

The book and the exhibit coincide with the Transportation Museum’s African-American N&W Rail Heritage Celebration Day coming up June 21.


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