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Oral history project chronicles legacy of Black Fulton railroaders

Fulton KY’s Historical African American Railroaders

An oral history project is highlighting the legacy of Black railroaders in far western Kentucky.

The rich histories of Fulton, Kentucky, and its twin city of South Fulton, Tennessee, are entwined with the railroad that runs through them. The area’s fortunes rose and fell with the rails over the decades. The railroad industry brought Fulton the renown that led it to host its Banana Festival.

Many of the people that worked in Fulton during the height of the railroad industry were Black and now some Fulton residents are collecting and curating the stories of their family members and neighbors that worked on the Illinois Central Railroad. One of the most notable projects is ‘Fulton KY’s Historical African American Railroaders,’ a Kentucky Oral Histories Society initiative organized by Linda Bradford.

Bradford’s project collects stories of Black railroaders who worked as dining car operators and engineers. Much of the project was created by the railroaders' family members who provided insight into the railroad experience.

“From its inception, thousands of African-Americans worked for the nation’s railroad and changed history. At one time, the Illinois Central Railroad was one of the nation’s greatest employers of African-Americans,” Bradford wrote on the project’s website. “As well, at one time, as many as thirty trains a day passed through Fulton, Kentucky. Certainly, the stories of the African American Illinois Central Workers of the historic Fulton, Kentucky, railroad station have earned a mark on that important page of history.”

The project was inspired by Bradford’s interest in the life of her father, Gus Holderness, who worked as a dining car waiter in the 1940s.

Bradford, a Fulton native and a retired Northern Colorado University professor, says Black railroaders faced discrimination during the Jim Crow Era and were not given the same comfortable accommodations as their white counterparts.

Illinois Central Railroad in South Fulton
Fulton KY’s Historical African American Railroaders
Illinois Central Railroad in South Fulton

Retired Western Kentucky Community and Technical College history professor Berry Craig says it’s not possible to learn about Fulton’s railroad history without learning about the Jim Crow Era. He says Fulton is representative of what was going on in the Southern United States.

“There were these posh trains that would come in through Fulton,” Craig said. “Blacks could only ride in these segregated ‘Jim Crow’ cars. Hotels and restaurants in Fulton were off limits to African-Americans. Even churches and cemeteries were segregated.”

Though the project highlights the struggles the railroaders went through, it also discusses the newfound upward mobility the railroad industry provided them and their families.

The railroad, Bradford said, supported Black businesses with the constant traffic of passengers stopping in both Fulton and South Fulton, many of which patronized a Black community of businesses known as Missionary Bottom.

South Fulton native John “Pete” Algee is a former engineer and brakeman for the Illinois Central Railroad and is the project coordinator for the Bradford’s project. He says working as a Black man on the railroad was difficult because there were not as many minority railroaders in rural areas such as Fulton.

Working on the railroad provided me some great opportunities,” Algee said. “It was a positive experience for me and my family. I got to work in management and as a union employee. I was able to move around to different places working for the railroad.”

Algee worked for the Illinois Central Railroad and Canadian National Railroad from 1976 until 2007. Algee was the first elected Black city official in South Fulton.

More information on Algee and other Fultonians who worked on the Illinois Central Railroad can be found on the project’s website.

Mason Galemore is a Murray State student studying journalism. He was the editor-in-chief of his high school newspaper. Since then has explored different publication avenues such as broadcasting. He hopes to travel as a journalist documenting conflict zones and different cultures. He remembers watching the Arab Spring in 2011 via the news when he was a kid, which dawned in a new age of journalism grounded in social media. His favorite hobbies are hiking, photography, reading, writing and playing with his Australian Shepard, Izzy. He is originally from Charleston, Missouri.
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