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This train traces the route of black migration north

By Lorne BlumerContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / January 26, 2005


The South Side of Chicago may not seem the likeliest place to begin a journey on the train they call the City of New Orleans. But for this trip, it is the best place.

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It is here that he stands atop a mound of shoe soles at Martin Luther King Drive and 25th Street, his suitcase barely held together by rope, contents threatening to spill into the winter wind. He is the statue that tells a million and more stories - of African-American migrants who fled the rural South for the industrial North. Beside him is a McDonald's restaurant with displays honoring Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, and Martin Luther King Jr.

Behind him is a succession of infamously dangerous housing projects.

Elbow drooping, he waves tentatively at his unknowable future. The train journey ahead of me, with stopovers in big cities and whistle-stops, for a self-guided tour of African-American history, promises to teach something about his past.

At Chicago's Union Station, the two-tiered City of New Orleans towers over the chilly platform. Ice caked around its cables, it hisses like an impatient sea monster. I climb to the upper level and settle in, my heart beating double time with anticipation.

My euphoria is not universal.

"I can't believe we have to sleep like this," a girl complains to her father about the reclining chair that will double as her bed.

She has a point. But this is the City of New Orleans' true legacy. Whereas the luxurious and long-gone Panama Limited meant sleeping cars with fine china and pull-down wash basins, the City of New Orleans meant coach seating.

The Amtrak version is a hybrid - sleeping cars for some, seats for most. And unaffected customer service for all.

Joy works in food services, she explains, but because the train is packed, she's helping out the attendants.

She gives directions and a caution.

"Stay where your hat check is," she says of the cards above our heads, identifying our destinations.

"Otherwise, you'll ride all the way with us and you'll wake up in New Orleans. And my house is full. ... Well, no it's not, but it's a closet."

As we rumble through the night in rural Illinois, there's little to see, but time enough to meet a fellow passenger - a young African-American woman visiting Southern cousins for the first time - and enjoy the clatter, rhythm, and sway of the ride.

An hour late, and long past midnight, we reach Centralia, Ill.

Like half of the stops the City of New Orleans makes, Centralia is an old railroad town.

The displays at the Historical Museum are far-ranging, from articles about the 1947 mining disaster that killed 111 to a tribute to Jim Brady, Ronald Reagan's press secretary.

There are also high school graduation photos. Through 1946, black students are relegated to the bottom row.

A black presence in Centralia was first felt in the 1850s, when numerous runaway slaves hid in local homes and barns before escaping north. After Emancipation, many more came to settle. In 1895, their alderman, Henry Bibb, demanded an end to segregated grade schools.

The "solution" was rezoning, confining most blacks to their neighborhood school, but allowing those who lived in other sections of town to join white classes.

MariettaBroughton, the long-time Morning Sentinel editor, remembers an integrated childhood with black classmates and playmates. She also recalls an assignment from black neighbors John and Rachel Smith. John was a railroad porter. When John came north from New Orleans, Rachel would send young Marietta to the tracks. The train would slow, and John would toss a bag of shrimp out the window to the girl, who would hustle it back to Rachel to prepare for dinner.

In 1947, blacks moved up in the high school photo to the second- and third-to-last rows. In 1951, separation by color was over.

The train pulls in an hour late.

"I didn't lie," a woman tells her restless son, who's impatient to board the train that was due at half past midnight. "Amtrak lied. And they didn't lie. They were just misinformed."

In coach, sleeping passengers' limbs flop over armrests, the fortunate riders with two seats are lying down and curled up, using jackets for pillows. I find a seat and something resembling sleep.

A few hours later the train slows.

"Anyone want to go to Memphis?" the attendant calls.

Downtown Memphis struggles fiercely to revivify itself with trolley cars, defunct warehouses converted into lofts, and new homes on the Mississippi River bluff. This is the river along which many slaves escaped, or died trying to.

Their story, of humans denied humanity, is told at the Slave Haven/Underground Railroad Museum.