The Columbus Free Press


Part 57

The Depression begins

by Thomas C. Fleming, Oct 21, 1998

In the fall of 1928, after working for the Southern Pacific Railroad for more than a year, I encountered the seniority system, in which those who have been on jobs for the shortest period are the first to be released in periods of decreased economic activity.

When I went to the commissary to sign up on the time cards, I found I had been scratched by a third cook with more seniority. So I had to leave the crew that I had been with since the beginning. The seniority system is one of the many benefits that the trade union movement has bestowed on American industry, and the railroads were very heavily unionized.

In 1928, few thought that the nation and the world were on the verge of the Great Depression, which would bring many profound changes, politically and economically.

I soon got a place on another dining car, and when the stock market crashed in 1929, I didn't quite know what it meant. Then I started reading about plants closing up, in all lines of manufactured products, plus coal mines.

I was worried about whether I would have a job during this period. The passenger business went down, so they started taking off some cars and reducing the work force. Some Pullman sleeping cars were replaced with chair cars, to accommodate people with little money. And the railways started canceling some routes, which meant fewer crews in all categories. If your seniority was less than 10 years, your chances of working every day were not good.

I began to realize just how big the Depression was after my first trip to Chicago in January 1930. It seemed that every freight train we passed was full of people -- men and women, blacks and whites, some with small children or babies in their arms, wandering in search of jobs that simply did not exist.

The media was full of news about the Depression, which I was beginning to realize was worldwide. It seemed that all industry had reached rock bottom. Trade unions took a beating. All of the unions in the crafts and in industry were fighting hard to survive, as more and more workers were laid off.

Civil service or public service workers did not suffer the same job losses as workers in the private sector, although few received wages exceeding $1800 annually.

I was bumped around from one dining car to another, and began to suffer my first apprehensions about life. Roosevelt was still governor of New York state, and poor Herbert Hoover, the so-called "Great Engineer," seemed paralyzed with fear to even leave the White House; it was said that he had increased the security forces there.

People were on the move all over the nation. There was a great migration from the Dust Bowl, which encompassed a great deal of Oklahoma, Arkansas and Texas. People also left the great grain belt in Kansas and other Middle Western states, where farmers had been producing bumper crops in corn and wheat.

Some railways had their own cops, called railroad bulls, who would throw off all freeloaders who rode freight trains, even in desolate sections of the nation. Who knew if the people died, if they were thrown off in the middle of nowhere?

Local law enforcement officials protested the dumping of undesirables in their towns. During the Depression, the railways recognized the situation, and I heard that railway security people received orders not to enforce the rule.

Among the blacks I knew, the railway with the worst reputation for throwing off non-paying passengers was the Santa Fe. At a junction in the Mojave Desert of California, the railroad would watch to see how many people got on the freight trains, and when the train started rolling, they'd put three or four of those bulls on there, to force the riders off. They knew they didn't have any money, and didn't care what happened to them. But when the Depression started, I'm pretty sure they weren't as rough as they had been, because there were just too many people out there.

Before 1931 ended, trips on the railway had become so infrequent that for long periods I did not go near the commissary. I worked maybe one trip every three weeks. Some months I worked enough to clear $60. Blacks probably suffered worse than whites during this time, because their wages were lower; they had a depression before the Depression started. Both my mother and my sister were working as domestics, and jointly they earned about the same amount that I did.

I didn't quit my job; I just stopped going down there, because there was so little work. I made my last trip for the Southern Pacific in 1932.

The last time I rode a train was in the 1970s, when I traveled across the country by rail. I talked with some of the guys who worked on them that time, and the kitchen crew is mixed now. They have blacks and whites both working on the crews, because they're paying a lot more than they did in the 1930s.

The City of San Francisco, a Southern Pacific diesel train, at the yard
in West Oakland, early 1950s. (Photo courtesy of Bill Yenne.)
The railroads never did recover after the Depression, although they continued to haul a lot of people until the early to mid-1950s, when the freeways and commercial airlines took off. Then the passenger train business started getting real bad, and the railroads shifted more and more to freight. In 1972, nearly all long-distance passenger lines in the country were taken over by Amtrak. And the people who still ride Amtrak: you can't drag them on a plane.

Copyright © 1998 by Thomas Fleming. Email.
At 90, Fleming continues to write each week for the Sun-Reporter, San Francisco's African American weekly, which he co-founded in 1944. A 48-page book of his stories and photos from 1907-19 is available for $3, including postage, and a 90-minute cassette tape of his recollections of black life in Florida, Harlem and Chico from 1912-1926 is available for $5, including postage. Send mailing address or call 415-771-6279.

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