Alan Laird was in his second decade of collecting the artifacts of African Americana when he chanced upon a railroad conductor’s hat. Black and sturdy, with a shiny rim, it brought his father’s railroad past back with a roar. That’s when Laird, the son of a railroad cook, refocused his collector’s passion on the hard but hopeful lives of blacks who labored on the tracks and inside the train cars that transported Floridians and the nation beginning more than a century ago.
Across town, Femi Folami-Browne , the granddaughter of a rail worker, also heard the voices of the past. But how, she wondered, could she preserve the lost or never-told stories of the porters, stewards, maids, cooks and cleaners who made a living in the railroad world, decades ago and into modern day? A Facebook posting, an unexpected phone call and many, many conversations later, the National Black Railroaders Historical Society was born in Miami, the work of two railroad family descendents whose interest in the tracks has transformed them into keepers of a culture.
For months, Browne and Laird have worked to create a new chapter in the national black railroad narrative, starting with a tiny corner of the Gold Coast Railroad Museum in southwest Miami-Dade County that houses a portion of Laird’s collection of memorabilia, combining the limitations of yesterday with a sense of promise. And by the time the Smithsonian’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture opens in 2015, the historical society hopes to offer part of its evolving railroad collection as a way to reach a broader audience.
“I realized that I had this deep passion to share our history and make sure our story isn’t forgotten,’’ says Laird, 61, a minister and former art gallery owner in Oakland. “The voices of blacks who worked the railroad industry need to be heard.”
Now, some of those moments will be shared in Miami this weekend as part of the historical society’s first reunion and Juneteenth jubilee, commemorating the end of slavery in the United States. The program, including events at the Gold Coast Railroad Museum, will honor some of the soldiers of the rails — those who worked on everything from the vintage 19th century Pullman Palace Car Company rail cars to contemporary Amtrak trains — with lifetime membership into the society.
“We have forgotten the history that blacks helped build, from laying tracks to repairing trains,’’ says Lovette McGill, president of the Miami-Dade chapter of the A. Philip Randolph Institute, an organization for African American trade unionists. The local chapter partnered with the historical society for the reunion.
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