Karson Briggs stacked tiny metal squares atop his bridge of paper, pipe cleaners and straws until it collapsed under the weight of more than 2 pounds. It was a lesson in more than just physics.
“In the Civil War time, who built the bridges?” asked his aunt, Tasha McNutt, who brought the 5-year-old to the B&O Railroad Museum on Sunday. She pointed to an old photograph of a bridge that helped carry Union soldiers to battle.
“The people,” Karson answered.
“What kind of people?” she asked, reinforcing a bigger lesson she hoped he would gain from the visit.
“African Americans,” he remembered.
As the nation marks the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday for the 34th time this year, the museum is seeking to emphasize the work of African Americans in building up the railroad industry — and the momentum within the industry to advance the larger civil rights movement King led.
Museum educators are teaching that through activities like the bridge-building workshop, which continues Monday, and through a tour dedicated to the role of African Americans in building railroads, and of railroads in building a black middle class.
“People tend to focus on the technologies and don’t realize the history," said Kris Hoellen, the museum’s executive director. “Who did the railroads impact? That’s the story we are working to tell.”
At the beginning of that history is the truth that slave labor built much of the country’s early rail lines, Hoellen said, likely including parts of the Baltimore and Ohio, which opened the country’s first rail line in 1829. Rail companies leased slaves from their owners for the construction work.
Then, in the Civil War, escaped slaves worked to help the U.S. army destroy Southern rail lines, and to repair and rebuild tracks sabotaged by the Confederates. Museum staff are highlighting that role through the bridge-building activities for kids.
After the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, railroads became the country’s largest employer of African Americans, Hoellen said. As the nation and the industry grew, the B&O was central to Baltimore’s prosperity in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
“The railroads were the Internet of their time," Hoellen said.
But, of course, African Americans did not fully share in that prosperity. They worked long hours as porters for Pullman Palace Car Co., and passengers called all of them George, after the company’s owner, George Pullman.
Led by A. Philip Randolph, they formed the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters union, eventually achieving new workers’ rights, including pay increases and shortened work weeks, in the 1930s. Those advances helped build the civil rights movement in the decades that followed, Hoellen said.
“It’s a complex history," she said. "The railroads played a very significant part in that journey.”
Members of Baltimore’s Union Baptist Church came to the B&O’s historic roundhouse in Southwest Baltimore on Sunday to help commemorate that journey, singing the same folk songs sung by early African-American rail workers. The 168-year-old church played a central role in the civil rights movement locally, as early as in 1905, when the Rev. Harvey Johnson successfully challenged Maryland law allowing segregation on train cars.
The Rev. Alvin C. Hathaway Sr., who leads the church now, said Union Baptist will be working in the months ahead to further explore the ways African Americans shaped the rail industry, and how the industry shaped black culture.
“It’s important we share experiences and tell stories," Hathaway said. "It really shows how far we’ve come.”
If you go:
The B&O Railroad Museum continues its weekend spotlight on civil rights Monday, with kids’ workshops at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., a train ride at noon, and a guided tour at 1 p.m. The tour focusing on African Americans in the railroad industry will continue periodically going forward.