“Cotton to Silk” Oral History Project
“Cotton to Silk": Oral Histories of African American Workers on the Norfolk & Western Railroad, was an oral history project carried out in 2013 and resulted in the book, African American Railroad Workers of Roanoke: Oral Histories of the Norfolk & Western (History Press, 2014). The project was originated by the African-American N&W Heritage Celebration Group, which consists of retired and currently employed African American railroad workers who worked for the Norfolk & Western Railway Company or who continue to work for Norfolk Southern Corporation. The project was funded in part by the Historical Society of Western Virginia and the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. The purpose of the project was to record and share the experiences of African Americans who worked on the railroad in the Roanoke Valley during the last century. The impetus for the idea was the exhibit that has become a permanent installation at the Virginia Museum of Transportation (VMT), “African American Heritage on the Norfolk & Western 1930-1970.”
Twenty in-depth interviews resulted with twenty narrators who ranged in age from 40 to 98 years. The interviewees worked in a variety of positions with N&W and Norfolk Southern, and produced 30 interview hours and close to 1,000 pages of transcripts. The oral histories tell the story of a major American corporation and the changes that took place from the Jim Crow era through the Civil Rights period to today’s corporate diversity program—and most important, the effects on the African Americans who worked there and their community. Although there have been recent publications that address the role African Americans have played in the building and maintaining of America’s railroads, none has focused on the Roanoke Valley or the Norfolk & Western Railway.
I feel honored to have been a part of this project. I conducted and edited all of the interviews, wrote the introduction and managed the project and publication. The interview archive resides at the History Museum of Western Virginia and the interviews have been used to update the installation at the Virginia Museum of Transportation. I hope the project lives up to interviewee Mike Worrell’s sentiment about publishing these stories: “That’s a good thing because everybody needs to hear it. Not only is it a story of them, it’s actually a story of the railroad or how the railroad got to where they are at. Without those stories, there wouldn’t be an America.” As David Cobbs told the Roanoke Times (February 16, 2014), “This is not just African American history, this is everybody’s story.”
Al Holland and me at the Virginia Museum of Transportation, May 2015, photo by Deena Sasser