researched by David Head
This is the untold
saga of a great nation of people whose names and feats have been
undocumented. These nameless, faceless, hard workers who endured the
physical, backbreaking labor from day to day made the transportation
system work. Although they were excluded from the process of making
decisions, African Americans nevertheless played a major role in
paving a road across the world.
Americans we should never forget those courageous pioneers who
pressed on with their dreams during very difficult times. These
creative inventors were determined to succeed against all odds. Each
of them has made his aspiration a reality by contributing to the
industrial, social and economic progress of this great nation,
To begin this
journey we must leave the shores of North America and travel back to
our roots across the Atlantic Ocean to the continent of Africa, the
cradle of civilization. We come upon the ancient Cushite empire of
Ethiopia which was the first source to give the world ideas. This
great nation led the way in the unexplored fields of engineering,
science and transportation. It was their skillful hands that raised
mammoth walls, dugout lakes and laid roads that have, endured
throughout the ages.
The wheel has been
around since the beginning of mankind. It was further developed by
the Ethiopians and Egyptians whose empires existed for over three
thousand years. They flourished through trade, commerce and military
conquest. Caravans of four wheel carts pulled by oxen and horses
carried passengers. Their merchants sailed across the ocean to
India, Persia, Arabia and beyond.
reigned supreme in navigation from 2700 B.C. to 600 A.D. These
dominant mariners were also excellent merchants. The Phoenicians
built large fleets of merchant ships departing from well constructed
ports, they sailed, traded and exchanged goods throughout the
Mediterranean Sea and beyond the Strait of Gibraltar. Their skill
and knowledge of wind and current were extraordinary.
The history of the
Moors and their contribution has been long neglected. Rich with
commerce and industry, learned in all the arts and sciences, the
Moors developed a
culture that would. light up the world from its dark ages. During
this golden age between the 7th and 14th centuries AD, their
advances in navigation include lateen sails, astrolabes, and
nautical compasses. Moorish school teachers knew that the world was
round and taught geography from a globe.
expert maps, with all sea and land routes accurately located with
respect to latitude and longitude. Their sailors traveled the length
and breath of the then known world. Saturated with wisdom of the
ages, through its tributaries, the Moors constituted a link between
the ancient civilization and the modern world. It was not by
accident that a Moor named Pedro Alonso Nino was the chief navigator
for Christopher Columbus.
From the very
outset of expansion into the new world the inventiveness and labor
of Africans played an integral role. The Black presence was
operative when Nino piloted the flagship Santa Maria to what is now
known as America.
George Monroe and
William Robinson were to African Americans who carried mail on the
famous Pony Express. Monroe was also given the honor of driving
Presidents Ulysses S. Grant and Ruthertord B. Hayes along the
dangerous s-curve of the Wanona Trail into Yosemite Valley. For
being such a reputable stagecoach driver, Monroe Meadows was named
in his honor.
It may never be
known just how many inventions credited to whites were actually
created by their African captives. However, the number of inventions
make by Black people increase after the Civil War. By then, there
were at least 200 operating railroads. Many Blacks took part in the
backbreaking labor of connecting the Atlantic to the Pacific, the
first trans- continental railroad in 1869.
Let's take a
closer look into the lives of the great Black inventors who improved
the transportation system through their creative ingenuity. Such
inventions as the automatic lubricator helped save time and money.
The rail industry can give credit to two runaway slaves when Elijah
McCoy was born on May 2, 1843. He developed a small cup with a valve
mechanism that could supply oil drop by drop to the moving parts of
machinery. McCoy devised many different lubricants that were so
efficient they became known as the "Real McCoy".
When discovered he
was Black many executives refused to buy his inventions. But that
was virtually committing economic suicide. From 1872 until 1915 most
locomotives in the United States and in many foreign lands used his
Then there was
Andrew Jackson Beard who worked-at a railroad yard in Alabama. While
there, he became familiar with one of the most dangerous
occupational tasks in the world-joining railroad cars. A worker
stood between two railroad cars to guide the linking pieces into
place and insert a metal pin that held the pieces together. Quite
often the heavy cars crushed the middle man before he could drop the
pin into place. On November 23, 1897, Beard eliminated the need for
a worker to stand in the no-man's land by creating the "Jenny
Coupler," a device that automatically joined cars by simply bumping
The name Granville
T. Woods may be alien to the average American. He most certainly is
one of the giants left out of the encyclopedia and documentaries on
transportation. His saga is one of the great legacies African
Americans have given to American history and culture. Granville T.
Woods was an electrical genius whose inventions were pivotal in
advancing the Industrial Age. Denied meaningful employment, Wood's
innovative spirit was being held back because of racial prejudices.
His determination drove him on to success by opening his shop, Wood
Electrical Company in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1881.
Induction Relay System saved lives and prevented the almost routine
train wrecks that occurred during that era. In 1885, Wood patented
the telegraphony, a device that allowed telegraph stations to send
messages via Morse Code and orally over the same lines. In 1887, he
created a synchronous multiplex railway telegraph which allowed
messages to be sent to and from moving trains, enabling train
conductors and engineers to report of hazard on tracks ahead, but
more importantly to avoid collisions. Wood also solved the
electrical problem of controlling the speed at which mechanical
parts moved by the amount of electrical current. By inventing a
device called a dynamotor, which regulated motor speed with much
smaller resistors that reduced the heat and the electrical waste.
T. Woods never became a household name, his reputation as an
electrical genius spread throughout the industry. 'The giant, Thomas
Edison, was so impressed by Wood he tried hard to recruit Granville
by offering him a prestigious position in his company. Granville
preferred to be his own boss and declined Edison's offer.
carbon filament which is the device that empowered the electrical
light bulb was another major invention on September 13, 1881. The
positive dynamics of this discovery would generate and ignite the
beginning of the modern age. These inventions, with widespread
implications, improved the lives of all Americans. In addition to
convenience, let us not forget the lives electric lights have saved:
warning and guiding signals improved and kerosene lamps which could
cause major fire damage on the wooden 'el" trains of that era were
The world in
deeply indebted to Garret Augustus Morgan for his contribution to
transportation safety. Morgan was a versatile inventor who witnessed
a gruesome accident between a horse-drawn carriage and an
automobile. Feeling something had to be done, Morgan devised a
signpost that would regulate traffic coming from all four directions
of an intersection. By creating a rectangular block stop and go
rotating traffic signal. When the blocks were at half-mast this
alerted everyone approaching the intersection to proceed with
caution. Morgan also proposed having the sign electrically lit so
they should be visible at night as well as during the day. Garret A.
Morgan received a patent for his traffic signal on November 20, 1923
at the age of 47.
It was quite
evident that these remarkable inventors lacked education in addition
to resources and capital to attain their goals. A young Frederick
Jones is a perfect example. Jones, fascinated by machines, developed
a burning desire to work with them. Never receiving the proper
educational training, Frederick had a keen, inventive mind and an
ability for understanding machinery. Jones designed a light compact
and sturdy unit in the forehead of a truck right above the cab. This
invention led to the formation a new firm called Thermo King.
Jones patented a
total of sixty-one inventions. Many of his ideas were soon adopted
for use ir1 railroad cars, cargo ships and airplanes. Frederick
McKinley Jones' inventions boosted the transportation industry
tremendously in making food products available by easing its
distribution. These brilliant, innovating pioneers opened a
passageway of progress to the twentieth century.
New York Era
As the wheels of
steel turned northward to the great metropolis of New York, there
laid ahead a giant industrial revolution. Here was an opportunity
for a better living. It was estimated that by the end of 1918, more
than 1 million Negroes had left the south by rail.
New York was known
as the gateway of the world, a national leader in transportation
with its landmark Grand Central Terminal, the monumental
Pennsylvania Station and, of course, the N.Y.C. subway system which
is the largest underground system in the world. In the midst of it
all was Granville T. Woods whose ideas and inventions did much to
change and modernize transportation. Woods make it possible to go
from inefficient, costly steam engine-driven trains to cleaner,
cheaper and more effective trains run by electricity. The World Book
Encyclopedia states there are two ways to get the current from the
powerhouse to the train: by overhead wires above the track and from
a third rail placed beside the track.
In 1888, Woods set
up an overhead conducting system for the electric railway. In this
system, a pole form a train or trolley would draw the electricity
needed to run the locomotive's motor from a power line running
overhead. This became a familiar sight in many cities.
called to New York in the 1890s to begin work on the subway. The
work was completed in 1904. His design of an electrical third rail
and air brake revolutionized the technology of rail transportation.
In 1889, Grand
Central Terminal was becoming a safety problem. The enormous amount
of smoke from its powerful steam engines was blinding pedestrians.
The city demanded: electrify the trains or move the operations out
In 1904, the NY
Central began work on a third-rail D.C. electrification of its lines
into Grand Central Terminal. The Long Island Railroad and
Pennsylvania Railroad likewise adopted a 650-volt O.C. third-rail
system. While the owners extended their lines and reaped huge
profits, employees were vastly underpaid. They endured poor living
conditions and being non-unionized, they were at the mercy of their
Randolph, father of the Black labor movement, began to organize the
Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters on August 25, 1925. Underpaid
and enduring extremely, long working hours, Randolph guided the BSCP
to a decent, well-paying job.
Company labeled Randolph a communist and fought his union every step
of the way. Yet Randolph never compromised his principles or goals
of the Brotherhood. After twelve long, grueling years of tearing
down racial barters, on August 25, 1937, the Pullman Company signed
a contract with the nation's first Black union. The union was the
voice of the porters.
assisted in the construction of the subway system from its
inception. They found employment in the rigorous cut and cover
operations in addition to the dangerous and difficult task of
tunneling. These sandhogs risked their lives daily tunneling through
rock, clay, sand or water. These men faced quicksand, cave-ins,
suffocation, flooding, drowning, fallen rock and pockets of gas that
would cause a man to pass out. They faced the added threat of
suffering from the dreaded bends which could permanently cripple or
hammer, pick ax and shovel removing rocks and dirt, these
strong-back Black men helped lay the foundation. Singing while they
worked: "Oh, Joe! Come on let us get this job done, ugh bam. Oh,
Joe! Come on let us get this job cone, ugh bam." This great
engineering feat of connecting major arteries throughout the
tri-state area, which is still being utilized today, is truly
amazing. These tunnels reduce traveling and maximized the efficiency
The I.R.T. began
operation on October 27, 1904. The majority of its workers and
supervisors were Irish. A few Blacks were hired as porters. There
were no promotional opportunities. It was not until 1935 the
Independent (IND) subway system hired the first Negro conductor.
Advancement for African Americans was tenuous and slow.
In 1943, during
World War II, the Board of Transportation began hiring a large
number of provisional employees. Black women were employed to drive
buses and trolleys. Some were used as ticket agents, Their efforts
kept the transit system operation smoothly.
Bus operator Mr.
Thomas Granger was the primary source in laying the track for his
brothers and sisters to come across racial barriers. Risking his
job, he fought tooth and nail with management and union. Granger
received no satisfaction so he decided to go the political route by
contacting Adam Clayton Powell, New York's first Black elected to
City Council Powell was a young, dynamic leader, and an agitator for
justice who guided the residents of Harlem to protest second-class
treatment. Adam lead the boycott campaign to break discrimination
that existed throughout the labor unions. His slogan,"don't buy
where you can't shop," was highly successful. These tactics forced
the NYC private bus companies to hire Black drivers for the first
were changed so a driver had to take a test to get a job. Keypunch
operators went to school to be reclassified. Ernie Barksdale became
the first African American Location Chief. Joe Legree, a retired
captain in the Air Force in maintenance was assigned to supervise a
training school to reorganize and upgrade the Negro mechanics.
When dealing with
union activity in transportation, two men are worthy of praise.
Intelligent and articulate with the ability to transform ideas into
reality, John T. Burnell and Roosevelt Watts were both men of
action, sincerity and concern with the needs and aspirations of its
members. At the time, Michael J. Quill began to organize the
transport workers during the early 1930s, John enthusiastically
worked alongside him. John Burnell's first job was a bus maintainer
for the Fifth Avenue bus lines. But his real strength lay as a
motivational speaker who could galvanize members on key issues that
affected their daily lives. Burnell raised the conscious level of
the transit worker, stressing an education agenda Emphasizing that
one must work to attain his goals,
John devised and
initiated the Educational Program for Transit Employees which
remains intact today. A tireless, unselfish, dedicated worker,
Burnell improved integration in job placement. Above all, Burnell
believed in one race, the human race.
Burnell was assigned to the NYC Transit Authority office of Labor
Relations in addition to the N.Y. State Department of Labor as an
was a man of great distinction, genuinely committed to helping his
people and always loyal and faithful to the causes of the T.W.U. In
1942, Watts began his illustrious career in transportation as a
street car operator. Then as shop steward, he became known as a man
of his word, who stood up for his fellow operators' rights. Watts
was elected Section Chairman for Brooklyn Bus in 1945 where he
served for 13 years.
A bright and
well-liked person who paid attention, Watts took advantage of each
opportunity when it presented itself. Roosevelt was elected to the
T.W.U. local Executive Board in 1960. Watts never forgot where he
came from and he reached back to bring his people along with him. He
continually gave advice and guidance whenever or wherever necessary.
Finally, in 1975, Roosevelt Watts became the first African American
to hold an executive position in the International. Watts also
became the first African American to hold a position as Vice
President in T.A. Surface. In addition, he held the title of
Executive Vice President of T.W.U. local 100. Roosevelt Watts, a
visionary person looked forward to seeing the day when local 100
would have Black President.
On March 29, 1962,
Fifth Avenue Coach abandoned its operation to the NYC Transit
Authority, This was the birth of MABSTOA. In 1968, a group of 6 men
felt they were not receiving any recognition. They began to unify
and mobilize all African American Transit employees. Thus the
Society of African American Transit Employees was born. Mr. Adolph
Roberts, their audacious leader, spearheaded this fight for equal
rights. As a group, they were now able to get the Transit
Authority's attention. The TA didn't like their ideas and these men
were targeted, harassed and penalized by management.
Committed to their
cause, this would only addressed hiring and placement practices,
working conditions, promotions, disciplinary action and termination.
By exposing and confronting management on these issues, improvements
could be made.
In 1971, Marcy
Gibson,-an alumni of the Society of African American Transit
Employees, became the first Black Chief Executive Officer for the
In the process of
these confrontations, a young, quiet warrior would emerge whose
leadership qualities would grow over the years. A spiritual man of
inner vision whose patently planned agenda would place him at the
fore front of various key positions in the Transportation Workers
Union. A lengthy, yet timely ascension to the top would place Mr.
Willie James at the pinnacle of an exemplary career. By becoming the
first African American president of the TWU since its inception, Mr.
James now leads one of the most powerful unions in America. He
continues to push forward and fight for the rights of all Transit
Workers, and remains committed to unity, activism and respect for
all of his members as we enter the 21st century.
Let us not forget
the real unsung heroes in the background bearing the brunt of the
work load, keeping the wheels turning in this fast-paced, high
pressure, stressful city. The men and women who operate routinely at
their work sites as porters, token booth clerks, conductors,
carpenters, bricklayers, motormen, mechanics and bus operators. They
make the T.A. the number one transit system in the world work.
American presence in transportation extends throughout the history
of the transportation industry in America. Their epic contributions
have transformed the global experience in traveling. The African
American was not just a mere spectator of world history but a
creative originator since the genesis of mankind.
Today, the freedom
train has knocked down old, entrenched racial policies over the
years. Opportunity to grow is everywhere, the challenge lies within
each individual to build upon our proud legacy.