This train traces the route of black migration north

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.

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.

An 1850s city directory lists "slave dealers" beside "soap and candles" and "stove dealers." A slave auction notice says, "Two of the children will be sold with mother, the others separately, if it best suits the purchaser."

Some escaped, thanks to the likes of Jacob Burkle, whose home is the site of the museum, and whom many believe sheltered runaways. Standing in the low-ceilinged, dank cellar, you wonder how the refugees could stand it. But, explains museum cofounder Elaine Turner, a cellar's brick floor was luxury compared to a slave shack's dirt.

The former Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, is now the National Civil Rights Museum. It's a place that makes history tangible. On a replica of a 1955 Montgomery, Ala., bus, when you sit on a seat reserved for white customers, as Rosa Parks did, you get yelled at by the mannequin driver, until he finally summons the police.

On tape, James Chaney's mother, Fannie, recalls waiting to hear his fate after he disappeared in 1964: "I was still hoping that they would find him, even if he had been beat up. If he had just been alive...." and her voice breaks. The voice of Andrew Young remembers Martin Luther King initiating a pillow fight in the motel room outside of which he would be shot. The room is now marked by a wreath hanging from the balcony.

Outside, a black woman tells her son, "I want you to think about everything you saw in that museum."

The City of New Orleans leaves Memphis at dawn. Overnighters cling to sleep as the horn blows at empty Mississippi road crossings.

Outside the window, a squadron of narrow, sun-pinkened clouds snakes through a bluing sky. Mississippi Delta fields, amber and dusty brown, hibernate, while the sun casts a pale orange halo around bulrushes poking from the mud.

Gradually, passengers awaken. A woman gossips loudly into her cellphone. Many are agreeably impressed by the passing sea of well-kept homes, crumbling shacks, and "the graveyards of the rusted automobiles."

In midafternoon, we reach McComb, Miss.

McComb, like Centralia, is an old railroad town. It's a town where the bombings just wouldn't stop during Freedom Summer of 1964.

"Don't ask me why we were dumb enough to go out of our houses," says Hilda Casin. "We could have all been killed."

But she and her community had reached the point where inaction was intolerable. A teacher, Ms. Casin had to sign a declaration promising she would not join a subversive organization, such as the NAACP.

When her phone rang in the middle of the night to report a home had been dynamited - or when her shaking bed made the phone call superfluous - she rushed over to hold hands and patch up walls.

Judge Spencer Nash, then in college, remembers standing guard at night with a shotgun to protect possible targets.

When Woolworth's allowed blacks at its counters, Mildred Williams remembers, she dressed her three children "like it was Easter Sunday," sat them on the stool, and when the food was served and her point made, took them down and walked out the door.

In her "retirement," Casin, still undoing the wrongs of past and present, has bought a decaying house on her street and converted it into a Black History Gallery. Warm browns and oranges dominate a room with African artifacts, including a rain stick no child could resist. In another, paintings juxtapose plantation mansions with slave shacks, and posters inform you that African-Americans invented the fire extinguisher, the clothes dryer, and the gas mask.

Across town, C.C. Bryant, a local leader in the civil rights movement and a bombing target in those days, has seen his street renamed - to C.C. Bryant Drive.

Leaving McComb, the City of New Orleans sweeps past cozy Louisiana towns and enters swampland, trees emerging from the sludge, Spanish moss draped from branches. Then it's over Lake Pontchartrain by bridge and along its shores.

A passenger unconcerned with decorum is on his cellphone: "You be in those stiletto pumps," he commands.

Welcome to New Orleans.

At the conclusion of a trip emphasizing education over recreation, the French Quarter promises respite. It's a warm night, perfect for sitting in the Maison Bourbon and hearing some jazz.

A teenage boy sits in back drinking something wholesome-looking, an older woman - his grandmother, perhaps - in a wheelchair beside him. An Asian family sits around a table. A woman watches from outside.

And a mostly white audience happily pays for the privilege of watching black men play jazz.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to This train traces the route of black migration north
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today