History of Waterloo's Railroad Legacy
History of Waterloo's Railroad LegacyBy the turn of the 20th century, Waterloo had established itself as "The Factory City", abundant with job opportunities. The rail served a critical role in the supply and distribution chains, feeding the city’s appetite for industrial expansion. On September 30th, 1911, the employees of the Illinois Central Railroad in Waterloo joined the Rail Workers Union in a strike that would set the stage for a century-long struggle of a community divided by the
impact of racism, redlining, and segregation.
In desperate need of workers to meet the high demand for goods in the region, the Illinois Central Railroad faced a crisis due to a strike by union workers. With direct access to southern plantations and the recent abolition of slavery, the railroad offered a fresh start in the Midwest. Signs along the railway and in African American communities encouraged people to "Come to the Promised Land". The promise quickly spread across the Mississippi bayou and beyond.
Communities along the Illinois Central Railroad were struggling economically, and the railroad actively recruited able-bodied men to work in the Midwest. This opportunity offered an escape from the violence and discrimination in the Jim Crow South and relief from the devastation caused by the boll weevil infestation in Southern cotton plantations. It represented the long-awaited change promised to African American slaves after the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation became a reality.
For many, the cost of transportation was a significant burden, often amounting to 10% or more of their yearly income, if they had any income at all. Investing twenty dollars for the journey was usually beyond the means of most Southern Black families. However, the prospect of earning ten times more in Chicago than in Mississippi made it seem worth the risk. Families had to sell cherished heirlooms, and husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons left their families behind with promises to send money once they arrived. They gathered at the train depots in groups, bidding their loved ones farewell, filled with a mix of emotions— excitement, uncertainty, hope, fear, and the longing for a reunion someday. Most had no idea where the rails would take them, and sadly, some would never see their loved ones again.
The welcome committees were unfriendly. African American strikebreakers who came to the City of Waterloo were met with hostility. Picketing rail workers and their families gathered at the train depot to throw spoiled produce and spit on them with greasy wads of Beechnut tobacco. With more workers arriving, there was a shortage of places to stay, and those with accommodations didn't want to support these African American strikebreakers who had taken jobs from their family and friends.
For many, the first weeks, months, and even years were spent living in makeshift quarters like old shipping containers and worn-out boxcars. African American camps were in a lawless vice district known as Smokey Row or the Black Triangle, next to the rail yard. While it was close to their jobs, living conditions were harsh, and city rules prevented people of different nationalities from living elsewhere.
Even after the 1917 Supreme Court ruling in Buchanan v. Warley that ended racial zoning practices, real estate agents, developers, and homeowners used race-restrictive covenants to keep segregation in place. These restrictions, like one filed by the Waterloo Highland Neighborhood Association in 1945, said, "No low-cost homes, no small lots, no businesses, and no owners or tenants of any race other than the Caucasian race." These policies contributed to the lasting racial disparities in Waterloo that continue to exist today. Smokey Row Neighborhood in Relation to the CN Railyard
As migrants settled and amassed resources, many brought their families as promised. The African American neighborhoods in Smokey Row, desiring the same opportunities as white citizens, took pride in their progress. They transformed places of ill repute into restaurants, stores, and community organizations. Churches became the heart of the African American community in Waterloo. These community-backed congregations paved the way for Civil Rights activism and the creation of organizations like the NAACP in 1921.
The local NAACP gained national attention and pushed other Waterloo industries to hire African Americans. In 1920, after almost a decade of not employing black laborers, Rath Packing and John Deere hired their first black workers, a position previously held only by the Illinois Central Railroad. Although many African Americans were qualified for skilled labor, they were often assigned to more strenuous and dangerous jobs like slaughtering animals or foundry work.
In the 1940s and 1950s, a growing social awareness emerged in the African American community, leading to significant social unrest and Civil Rights activism in the 1960s and 1970s. In September 1948, during a strike at the Rath Meat Packing plant, a black strikebreaker killed a white union representative. The National Guard was called in to end the strike, but race riots didn't erupt.
However, on September 10th, 1968, long-simmering tensions boiled over. Three days later, after disturbances at a football game at Waterloo West's Sloane Wallace stadium, the National Guard was deployed, martial law was imposed, curfews were strictly enforced, and armed units patrolled the Smokey Row neighborhoods, creating fear and intimidation among those demanding equal rights. Once again, the city fell into division and injustice.