Bill Todd -- An Uneasy Utopia
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 Chapter 4

A Labor Force

The next day, I solved the lunch problem by having it with Mac. It might not have been the most restful solution, but it was a lot more restful than having to worry about being either insulted or attacked.

Sam Hanks, Mac's main finance men, was with us, and, as soon as we sat down, I gave them a partly censored but amusing account of my meeting with John Henry Jamieson. I ended,

"John Henry and I are now the best of friends. He believes that I saved him, and I believe that he saved me."

Hanks, a young man who seemed to have no fear of Mac, pointed to him and said,

"Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the men, here sits the real villain."

Mac, actually looking embarrassed, said to me,

"I wasn't trying to hide John Henry from you, son. I just forgot to mention him."

"I did wonder how we could afford to run all those freights and maintain all the locomotives that'll be required. Now I know. What're we paying John Henry?"

"Well, John Henry's quite a young man. He's paid much more than the going engineer's rate."

Hanks put in,

"But he's paid more to bust unions than to run engines?"

Mac nodded and replied,

"Southern blacks'll be happy with half the union scale for everything from ash-pit hand and platelayer to engineer. In fact, they'll be so happy that they'll work twice as hard."

Hanks said,

"They probably will at first, but I wonder how long they'll go on working twice as hard for half as much."

It was an obvious point, but a good one. Mac replied rather weakly,

"We'll gradually give them more as time goes on. And there's almost an unlimited supply."

Hanks smiled and let it go. Apart from being young, probably no more than thirty, he was extremely handsome, very bright, and supremely confident. Since he was also a product of the Harvard Business School, I had originally wondered why he hadn't ended up on Wall Street. But I now began to understand. Those dark flashing good looks were rather unsettling, not at all the thing for the House of Morgan. A man who thought as long and hard about Christianity as the elder Morgan might have wondered if there wasn't something Satanic in this man. And, of course, Hanks was quick to contradict his elders and superiors when he saw holes in their reasoning. Mac laughed when Hanks caught him out, but not many financiers would have.

I, oddly, also felt comfortable with Hanks. I wouldn't have dreamed of trying to compete with him, but I didn't find anything destructive in him. He was no sentimentalist, any more than Mac, but it would have seemed distinctly minor league to him to bully a man who had had my sorts of difficulties.

It developed that Hanks and I, together, could counterbalance Mac, occasionally tease him, and get him to explain himself more fully than he would otherwise have done. I think that Mac liked being questioned. He loved to give explanations, and, up to a point, he liked to argue. On this occasion, we found out what he had been up to down south.

The Columbus and Greenville railway had the simple mission of crossing Mississippi, about two thirds of the way up. It might have connected Arkansas with Alabama had the Mississippi River not intervened. However, the C&G wasn't the sort of railway that could even think about putting up a bridge of that magnitude. Instead, it handed over passengers and freight to the Yazoo Railway, a line four or five times the size of the C&G, but hardly a behemoth itself. Indeed, in order to finally get anything or anyone across the river, the Yazoo, in turn, handed over to the Missouri Pacific at Memphis.

Since there were east-west lines to both the north and south which did cross the river, the pretensions of the C&G were never very great. It was content to undulate sinuously among the low hills and kick up dust and cinders in a couple of dozen hamlets in which oil lamps outnumbered electric light bulbs. When Mac acquired it, in 1927, it still served no major cities.

The C&G had a mixed assortment of old locomotives, none bought new, a good many old freight cars, some not approved for interchange traffic, a few passenger cars, and a gaggle of employees of every conceivable description. Most important, from Mac's point of view, not a man or woman belonged to a railway union.

In this last respect, the C&G was typical of the smaller railways of the south. The larger systems stretched into the north, or at least into such centres as St. Louis and Cincinnati, where union organizers were too numerous and too determined to be denied. On the other hand, these latter gentlemen weren't likely to visit the C&G. They knew that all strangers were suspect in the regions traversed by such lines. They also knew what might happen to somone who talked too quickly with the wrong accent, particularly if he wanted to change things.

Perhaps unknown to the union organizers, there was an additional reason for them to stay clear of the C&G. Its president was perfectly capable of starting vicious and dangerous rumors about any person hanging around the yards and depots whose looks he didn't happen to like.

But, then again, Mac never really had to do anything really anti-social. Since it was obvious to everyone that he wouldn't hesitate to take extreme measures, other people almost always decided to be reasonable. In this case, he was able to take advantage of the absence of unionization to blur the color line. As he said to us,

"When I came to the C&G, hardly anyone had a definite job description. The engine crew hopped down to throw switches, and firemen were often recruited for a run by asking a track gang if anyone wanted to take a trip down the line. A lot of trains ran without conductors, and, if someone didn't show up for his shift, anyone handy might fill in. Instead of trying to put a stop to these tendencies, I encouraged them. The fewer work rules the better. I only made sure that a good many of the men were black. A lot of the more talented ones just drifted into positions that needed to be filled."

Hanks responded,

"Sounds like complete chaos. Did you have many wrecks?"

Mac shrugged in a way that seemed intended to indicate that there had been no wrecks. I said,

"I've never seen a railway that's actually run the way it's supposed to be. The more rules you have, the more they're broken."

I gradually discovered that Hanks knew nothing about the day- to-day operation of railways, and that Mac's experience, while extensive in some ways, was quite limited in others. Neither of them seemed to realize what sorts of things happened on even the most famous lines, and I filled them in a little.

"There's a yardmaster on the New York Central up in Albany who has a hamburger business right outside the yard office. He brings a good hundred pounds of beef each day, sets up grills, and sells hamburgers and soda pop at lunch time. Everyone goes there to eat. So, when he's supposed to be running the yard, he's outside grilling hamburgers. Everyone knows about it, but nobody does anything about it."

Hanks looked at me with amazement, but Mac believed me. He replied,

"The trouble there is that everyone's been in the same place too long. They're all friends, and they have a million little arrangements to make life easier and more profitable for themselves. We'll have constant movement around the system, and no one'll ever know who's a company spy."

That sounded rather dangerous for everyone. I changed the subject by asking more questions about the C&G and John Henry Jamieson. Hanks also seemed interested, and, of course, Mac loved to tell stories.

This story began in Columbus, Mississippi with a middle- aged black man. His name was Pie. Pie was, in fact, something of an underworld character, specializing in gambling, prostitution, and the like. He operated with impunity because his victims, to the extent that there were any, were all black. Pie did sell black women to white men, but neither those whites nor any others ever had any cause for complaint.

Pie also ran what amounted to an employment agency. Because of his extensive contacts back and forth across rural Mississippi, he was in a position to spot talented young people. Most of them came from families so deeply buried in poverty that he was able to virtually buy them from their parents. A few of the boys became numbers runners and some of the girls were trained to be fairly expensive prostitutes. However, most were placed in legitimate jobs, Pie taking a good chunk of their wages for the first year.

Until Mac arrived on the scene, Pie's best products worked at sawmill jobs, where a mistake meant a lost finger or hand, or as cooks in the kitchens of restaurants. It was Mac's idea that they could work on a railway, not just in the back-breaking unskilled jobs that were traditionally black, but in maintaining and running steam locomotives.

Pie had originally intended John Henry Jamieson to be a prize-fighter. Indeed, Pie had arranged a couple of local bouts in a dance hall, and John Henry, with no training, had knocked both his opponents cold. As Mac said,

"That made negotiations difficult. Pie claimed to have a heavyweight champion in the making, but he didn't know how to train a fighter. He also didn't have the connections to get him good matches. It was useless to try to explain to him that that's not a good career for a young man even if he's very good. To get John Henry for a railwayman, I had to make Pie a very nice offer in cash."

When John Henry, aged fifteen, was brought around, the only black ever hired personally by the president of the line, the men at the roundhouse were told to look out for him. Boarded with a prominent black family in town, he was placed, not on a track gang, but as an apprentice to a man who serviced locomotives.

On the C&G there were no pressure-operated grease guns. Grease was packed into bearings with strong hands. The work wouldn't have seemed glamorous to most people, but, to a boy who would otherwise have been stooping in the fields, it had a great and growing excitement.

Almost all the C&G engines suffered from one malaise or another, particularly when they first arrived on the property. There were broken springs, pipes that leaked steam, and even cracked frames. But, whatever else was wrong, there were almost always clogged boiler tubes by the dozen. These were cleaned laboriously, one by one. What was dirty work to an ordinary railwayman was something the young John Henry looked forward to when he woke early in the morning.

Mac, head-quartered in Columbus, kept an eye on John Henry from a discreet distance. None of the latter's co- workers showed any hostility. After all, who could take objection to a boy who was eager to undertake the most unpleasant jobs in the engine house, and in the adjoining works. Moreover, the boy's great strength was an asset on which all could draw. Everything about a steam locomotive was massive, and few components could even be lifted by an ordinary man. In the case of an old engine, every nut and fitting would be rusted in place. There were many times when a man, despite the mechanical advantage of a wrench, would find himself frustrated. It was nice to be able to wave to John Henry and have him come running.

Best of all, John Henry displayed no ambition. It appeared to the others that he would go on cheerfully getting the gunk out of boiler tubes until the end of time. As Mac said to us,

"When I heard the men talk about John Henry, I knew I had something. This kid was special, but I could get others, almost as able and willing, from the same place."

Indeed, Mac called again on Pie. There were soon a half dozen down home field boys working in the engine houses and yards, always as apprentices to older white men.

Since the Columbus shops had to virtually rebuild a good many of the engines just to keep them running, John Henry, like an intern in an inner-city hospital, observed and took part in every kind of restorative operation. After six months of this sort of training, he was then put on a special repair crew sent out by fast train to work on engines that had broken down somewhere on the line.

It was a little later that Mac intervened directly. John Henry, at sixteen, became a fireman on a regular freight run.

In some ways, it might have seemed a demotion to the boy. He had been doing far more sophisticated things in the engine houses and shops, things which few black men, and none so young, had been allowed to do. It seemed as if anyone could shovel coal into the firebox of an engine. Moreover, the firemen on the C&G were almost all black. No precedent would be shattered there.

Mac, not wanting to see his young man discouraged, arranged to meet him for the second time, this time without the knowledge of anyone on the railway.

The family with whom John Henry was boarding was far more sophisticated than his own. Headed by the leading black undertaker in the area, the family had for years lived close to the line that separated whites from blacks. Each member of the family knew, to very fine tolerances, exactly what was permitted in his or her position. None were inclined to break new ground.

While white businessmen occasionally had meetings with Mr. Jones concerning the sale of property and other matters, the meetings had always taken place in the offices of the white men. Mac broke precedent by going directly to the Jones home, but he did it without being observed by anyone in the white community. He arrived an hour or so before John Henry was scheduled to return from work one afternoon, and he found both Mr. Jones and his wife at leisure.

Mac discovered immediately that John Henry made them both profoundly nervous. They had already guessed roughly what the boy was going to do before he had any inkling of it himself, perhaps even before Mac had any definite plans for John Henry.

In addition, Mac, used to making a good impression on people, was confronted with open suspicion. Mr. Jones took him to be the sort of naive do-gooder whose actions might precipitate the mass lynching of blacks. Realizing that their approval was critical for his plans concerning John Henry, and a good deal else, he set out to convince them otherwise. I asked him how he had done that. Mac replied in his least Texas voice.

"These were people who had a very comfortable arrangement with society as they knew it. They were practically at the top of their community. It happened that they made their money out of religion, which, in that community, was an eminently respectable thing to do. Unfortunately, it was a narrow sort of religion. It was a sin to play baseball on Sunday, and it was a virtue to dress in a black suit and carry a Bible."

According to Mac, it was primarily Mrs. Jones, now functioning more or less as John Henry's mother, who sensed that there could be much more to life than following a set of rules. Even Mr. Jones, while very anxious that certain rules not be broken, was open to suggestion. As Mac casually stated it,

"Plato tells us that all men love the good, and he's right. They may not know what the good is, but they know what it isn't. Mrs. Jones knew that their way of life was very far removed from the good life, and she was willing to risk something. I gave her a small part of the picture, a railway on which someone like John Henry could be an engineer, as opposed to a ditch digger. The notion was irresistible, not because of anything I said, but in itself. There are extremely strong forces within us that embrace any part of goodness that we are allowed to glimpse. I then explained to Mr. Jones how we could promote John Henry without kicking up a fuss."

When John Henry returned, the Mr. and Mrs. Jones were prepared to influence him in the way that Mac wanted. He reported to work as a fireman only a few nights after that conversation with his adoptive family.

The C&G had no branches. The trains simply went from Columbus to Greenville, and back again. John Henry, like all the other firemen, soon came to know every hamlet, every curve, and every barking dog. They were all competent men, but John Henry differed from the others in two important ways. First, he was much younger. The position of fireman was virtually the top job for blacks on the railway, and the others all had a good deal of seniority. The second difference was one of attitude.

The middle-aged black men who fired the C&G engines were, to a man, extremely fearful of doing anything which might be construed as usurping a white man's function. At that time in Mississippi, a black man who looked the wrong way at a white woman could actually be lynched. One who had the effrontery to come to the front door of a large house with a delivery might well be beaten. Being the first black to perform a white function was decidedly dangerous, and they knew it.

As we talked, I recalled the John Henry I had met, and then imagined him as he might have been when he was even younger. The contrast with the older black firemen must have been striking. While John Henry, like the rest of us, would be subject to fear, he had probably never been easy to intimidate. New situations excited him, and he gauged whites, not to see where they would draw the line, but to see how far past the line he could muscle his way. On the other hand, I doubted that he had ever been foolhardy. He would certainly have cast his eyes down and away if approached by any white woman, even one who flaunted herself in a tight immodest dress. Mac wanted a man who would take advantage of opportunity without stirring up unnecessary opposition, and he had chosen well.

Mac's next move consisted in bringing back a white engineer, Joe Fred Langston, who had been fired for drunkenness. John Henry was made his fireman. They also carried a second fireman, another young man supplied by Pie. Joe Fred hadn't changed his habits during the period of his unemployment, and, as the run began at midnight, he would arrive even better oiled than the engine.

When the engine arrived at Greenville or Columbus with John Henry at the throttle, the men in the engine house would unload Joe Fred, often without even waking him. No one complained that a black man was in the right-hand seat. What else could the fireman have done?

This maneuver also fitted in nicely with the culture of the deep south. There was a tradition according to which a clever and loyal black man was allowed to rescue his white master from danger or difficulty. It was better if the master were a wounded cavalry colonel besieged by Yankees, but it was acceptable if he were a railway engineer who, night after night, had trouble distinguishing throttle from bottle.

There were clever white men at various levels in the C&G who knew exactly what Mac was doing, but he was proceeding in a shuffling half-humorous way that was more likely to produce amusement than anger. Sitting next to him, I could imagine Mac's part of the dialogue that might have taken place if someone had taxed him with having a black engineer.

"Why, son, as I understand it, the engineer on that train is Joe Fred Langston. Now, Joe Fred's a white man."

  . . . . . . . . . .

"Well, I can understand that Joe Fred might sometimes need a little help from his fireman. But I hope you ain't a goin to try to tell me that an engineer on the Columbus and Greenville Railway is too drunk every night to perform his duties."

This last sentence would have been let loose with a rising crescendo, and it would probably have terminated the conversation. But I could also imagine Mac closing in a more conciliatory way,

"You ask why we have two firemen on that train? Well, son, you know them coloreds! One may not show up for work, but let's hope the other one will!"

It has occurred to me that all successful reformers speak the language of those they have not yet reformed.

After a couple of months, Joe Fred was moved up to an earlier run. By that time, it was natural to make John Henry the engineer of record on the midnight train. The midnight freight did come to be known as the "nigger night freight," but that term was used with contempt, as opposed to anger or indignation.

As Mac told us the story of the C&G, his normal Texas accent became much more southern. I know that a great many Texans have families from Alabama or Mississippi, and that they can, so to speak, make the return journey. In fact, Mac was the sort of Texan who thinks of himself as a westerner rather than a southerner. But, of course, the transition to Mississippi must have been child's play for a man who could also be plausible on Wall Street.

Having established John Henry on the midnight train, another young black became fireman to Joe Fred on the run an hour earlier. Joe Fred, removed from the bars an hour earlier, would be able to get his freight out of the yard and up to speed, but, somewhere down the line, he would begin to nod off. Then, when he collapsed, hopefully without still grasping the throttle, he would be eased into a position of minimum discomfort. This process was repeated a number of times, and, within six months, all the night freights had black engineers. As Mac said,

"I wondered all along how far I'd be able to go, but, really, it got easier instead of harder. I'd start running yet another night freight, and put another black engineer on it, but I'd also hang around with the white engineers and ask their advice about all sorts of things. They'd even tell me which of the new black engineers were the best ones."

Only a minority of the new engineers were actually supplied by Pie. Mac had discovered that there were men like Pie all over the deep south. They were widely feared in their own communities, and they were reviled by men such as Mr. Jones. However, they were there to stay. In fact, their existence was a by-product of the arrangement by which the whites let the blacks run their affairs as long as they didn't cross certain lines. Within the black communities, the ministers, churchwomen, and the like controlled everything that was above-board and respectable. But, across the street, there would always be a man like Pie to see to everything else. Mac had a way of finding such men.

By this time, Mac had his eyes set on much larger things. He had come to regard the C&G as nothing more than a training ground for railwaymen. The number of freight trains, particularly night freights, multiplied. Some ran with only a half dozen cars, and it was rumored that the same empty box cars were taken continually back and forth across Mississippi.

More and more worn-out locomotives were bought at auction. No two were alike, thus affording particularly good practice for the men who serviced them. All were kept running. The number of trains using the passing tracks to the single-tracked main line created operating problems which rivalled those of Clapham Junction. It is hardly possible to imagine what the residents of sleepy Mississippi hamlets must have thought when confronted with an almost continual stream of engines whistling in the night.

There never were any racial problems. Mac continued to make concessions to local custom in ways that cost him nothing. No black man ever laid his hand on the throttle of a passenger engine. The whites might have found that offensive, and, of course, Mac never cared about passenger operation anyway. In addition, the faces of most engineers, at least the ones that could be glimpsed in daylight, continued to be white.

Much more important than these things, Mac created employment for whites as well as blacks. Many of the former were young field hands recruited in only slightly more elegant ways than those supplied by Pie. Once hired, they were treated in the same way, and they were just as happy as the blacks to get out of the fields and into an engine house or locomotive cab.

The original C&G work force was now mostly in the business of training railwaymen for a multitude of positions. Besides the honor of acting as instructors, they all received pay raises. There were a few incompetents like Joe Fred among them, but Mac, from this point on, refused to fire them no matter how hopeless they were. As he pointed out to us,

"It's the very worst employees who claim to have been treated unfairly when you fire them. In this case, they would've said that we gave their jobs to blacks."

As a result, everyone on the C&G was very happy indeed.

Some of these events took place before the depression in the fall of 1929, but Mississippi was so poor to begin with that the depression wasn't immediately felt there. Even a hurricane cannot destroy bare ground. Unfortunately, Mississippi did have a multitude of shacks and a few big houses. Even in that state, the economic activity slackened, and often failed. A great many whites were put out of work, and there was competition even to work in the fields.

At that point, everyone in the northern part of the state was delighted to have a railway which hired many more men than it actually needed. Everyone wanted to work for the C&G, and Mac was in a position to be quite choosy.

In this latter connection, he devised a set of tests and exercises to detect intelligence and competence even in the illiterate. In one of them, an applicant watched a pump or other piece of equipment being disassembled, and was then asked to re-assemble it. Mac didn't make the mistake of using stopwatches or trying to be scientific. Rather, the employment officer, taking a great many things into account, would simply watch the young man as he went through exercises such as this. He would then make an intuitive judgment whether to hire the applicant. Some were highly literate, and some could sign their names only with a cross. It didn't always matter. Steam locomotives do best under the guidance of strong sure hands. Glib tongues don't help much.

The girls did office and clerical work of many kinds, and did have to be literate. However, there were still some with remarkably little formal education who later reached considerable heights. All in all, the work force gradually turned out by the C&G gave Mac's system an advantage over its competitors more important even than the great circle routes.

At that lunch, I had no way of knowing much of this. While the C&G had already supplied many of the men who were building new yards all over the system, I had met only one of their men, a very large one.

Bill Todd -- An Uneasy Utopia
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