Davidson on Thaggert, 'Riding Jane Crow: African American Women on the American Railroad'

Miriam Thaggert
Jan Davidson

Miriam Thaggert. Riding Jane Crow: African American Women on the American Railroad. Women, Gender, and Sexuality in American History Series. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2022. Illustrations. 208 pp. $110.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-252-04452-6; $22.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-252-08659-5

Reviewed by Jan Davidson (Cape Fear Museum) Published on H-SHGAPE (March, 2023) Commissioned by William S. Cossen (The Gwinnett School of Mathematics, Science, and Technology)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=58348

Miriam Thaggert’s book, Riding Jane Crow: African American Women on the American Railroad, explores Black women’s experiences in a variety of railroad-related settings from Reconstruction through the 1930s. Using visual and literary sources, newspaper accounts, corporate records, legal cases, and the writings and scrapbooks of Pauli Murray, Thaggert centers Black women’s experiences and asks us to consider what this does to our understandings of legally sanctioned racial segregation, railroad travel, and narratives of American progress.

Riding Jane Crow consists of an introduction, four chapters, and what Thaggert calls a “terminus.” In the introduction, she leads off with a discussion of an incident from 2015, when members of an African American women’s book club were ejected from a Napa Valley Wine Train by train employees who seemingly falsely claimed that the women were loud and disruptive. After their experiences, the women sued and settled for an undisclosed amount. Thaggert asserts that this incident shows the continued relevance of Black women’s rail experience and then declares that “Riding Jane Crow details the experience of nineteenth and early twentieth-century African American women on or near American trains and discloses the displaced social history of African American women and U.S. train travel” (p. 3).

This book takes an intersectional and encompassing view of the railroad world. It explores the challenges Black women faced when they tried to access ladies’ cars and travel safely as passengers. It examines the architectural and legal landscape of railroad segregation. It highlights Black women’s work on platforms and in Pullman cars. And it explores the experiences of Murray, who both kept scrapbooks and wrote accounts of the joys of travel by freight train. As Riding Jane Crow covers this ground, it encourages readers to think about the railroad as more than a passenger experience and as more than a symbol of progress. Thaggert asks, “What, in short, is the effect of a technology like the railroad on racial and gender constructions? And how have these effects been archived and remembered in American culture?” (p. 11). She uses stories, work records, newspaper accounts, lawsuits, scrapbooks, and media to answer that question.

This book expands and extends the history of passenger rail travel—and history work on railroads—in interesting and engaging ways. Riding Jane Crow seems to be most in conversation with the work of Barbara Welke, Amy Richter, Eric Arnesen, and others who pay attention to gender, law, race, and work. In her introduction, however, Taggert uses two older historical works—Leo Marx’s The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America (1964) and Wolfgang Schivelbusch’s The Railway Journey: The Industrialization of Time and Space in the Nineteenth Century (1977)—to frame her discussion of Black women and railroads. Thaggert’s analysis of these works, and her point that their lack of attention to how ideas about gender and race complicate the cultural significance of railroads and railroad travel is a problem, is an accurate representation of the issues in these works. Still, her focus seems to downplay how others have shown that trains are not necessarily symbols of freedom and adventure. That said, Thaggert’s focus on Black women provides an additional intersectional analysis of the railroads in culture that is a corrective to mainstream depictions of railroads as symbols of modernity and process.

In chapter 1, “Ladies Space: An Archive of Black Women’s Railroad Narratives,” Thaggert uses slave narratives and the writings of Anna Julia Cooper and Mary Church Terrell to show that “gendered and racial discrimination are, quite literally, built into the nineteenth-century railroad environment” (p. 27). She looks at station blueprints to explore how race and gender were inscribed into the architecture at railroad stations, playing attention to how Black women were denied the right to enter spaces for “ladies.” She explores a short story by Terrrell that shows how Black women experienced hazards when seeking to travel safely on the rails and how she subverted Jim Crow customs to travel safely. In the story, “Betsy’s Borrowed Baby,” a Black college student accompanies a white child to Ohio in order to gain access to the safety of the Ladies Car. This short story illuminates that sexual and physical assault were an ever-present concern for Black women. Where generally white women experienced gender deference in the Ladies Car, Black women were more likely to experience sexual threats. Betsy’s journey South was full of danger; her travel North, when she acted as a nanny to a neighbor’s child, removed those threats, although white surveillance was a continued factor in her travel experience.

In chapter 2, “A Kiss in the Dark,” Riding Jane Crow focuses more attention on rail travel as a public space where strangers of different races and sexes interacted. Beginning with an analysis of visual gags from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that sexualized Black women’s presence on the rails, Thaggert explores how Black women who fought against Jim Crow were often accused of impropriety. Thaggert explores two cases in which women were ejected from train cars and sued railroad companies. In one case, the railroad company unsuccessfully claimed that the woman they ejected from the first-class car was a “notorious courtesan”; in the other, a conductor assumed that a woman traveling with her nephew (whom he assumed was white) was a prostitute (p. 57). Thaggert uses these examples to bolster her argument that gender shaped Black women’s experiences in significant ways, making their railroad experiences distinct from African American men’s experiences.

Chapter 3 moves the study off the train and onto the platform, and it moves the focus away from passengers to workers. In “Platform Politics,” Thaggert explores the work experiences of women waiter carriers, who sold food to passengers from the platform and the tracks. This chapter focuses on how women filled passengers’ needs for sustenance before there were dining cars. It is a case study of women who sold fried chicken in Gordonsville, Virginia. Again mixing historical context with literary analysis, the chapter explores the rise and fall of the waiter carriers, entrepreneurial Black women who made a living by selling food to railroad passengers. The chapter also explores how these women were drummed out of business by a depot restaurant and a town ban on their activities.

Chapter 4 examines the work of Pullman maids, exploring how these women’s experiences are hard to extract from the Pullman Archives and how they differed from Pullman porters’ experiences. There was one Pullman maid on each train, meaning that these women were a minority of the workforce. Thaggert uses Pullman employment cards, as well as the company’s rules for maids’ comportment, to explore women’s work experiences. Maids provided services—notably manicures and hair styling, as well as first aid and childcare services—to customers. These women, like their more famous male counterparts, were a symbol of the service that customers received while riding the rails in a Pullman car. Thaggert discusses women’s work experiences and the ways that the Pullman employee cards and the Pullman Archives make learning about maids a challenge. The women’s names, for example, are buried in lists of male employees, and women’s employee records were kept on cards that did not even acknowledge their work as a category of employment. The words “conductor” and “porter” were printed on the card, and when it was used for a maid, those words were crossed out and the word “maid” handwritten in their stead.

The final chapter, “Terminus,” is the most intriguing and potentially challenging chapter of Riding Jane Crow. Thaggert finds, in the words and life of Murray, an example of train travel that is more pleasurable than the bulk of the fraught experiences detailed in the rest of the book. Murray, who was a legal scholar, Episcopal priest, and writer with what Thaggert calls a “divergent gender identity,” is discussed as a way to see pleasure on the rails (p. 122). Thaggert explores Murray’s private and public writings about travel, notably jumping freight cars with her white friend Peggy Holmes. Murray and Holmes traveled together presenting as male. As Thaggert notes, “Not many accounts of train riding depict the pleasure of the Black female subject.... It is significant, then, that in one of the few episodes in which an African American publicly identified woman finds excitement, risk, and adventure of the locomotive, in lines that echo the familiar American narrative of freedom and resourcefulness, the ‘woman’ presents as a boy or a man” (p. 133). This not-quite-chapter that ends the book is an interesting rumination on gender identity and expression. Murray’s experiences seem to reinforce the anxiety and danger that most Black women experienced as they embarked on a segregated train ride or as they worked on platforms and in Pullman cars.

Overall, Riding Jane Crow deftly mixes literary analysis with case studies of a variety of aspects of Black women’s railroad experiences. It will be of interest to scholars of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, particularly historians who explore how ideas about gender and race played out in public and quasi-public spaces like the railroads.

Citation: Jan Davidson. Review of Thaggert, Miriam, Riding Jane Crow: African American Women on the American Railroad. H-SHGAPE, H-Net Reviews. March, 2023. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=58348

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

This is an interesting study at the intersection of race, gender, and technology. For more on the employment of Black women in a variety of railroad occupations, I highly recommend railroad historian Shirley Burman's "Sisters of the Iron Road" (SBS Publishing, Sacramento, CA, 2022).