African American Coach Cleaners in Kentucky(start date: 1890 - end date: 1950)
By Reinette F. Jones, December 6, 2022
1. Was the Coach Cleaners' Quartet located in Kentucky?
The group was located in Lexington, KY. The members were African American male employees of the Louisville and Nashville Railroad Company. They sang during the company's monthly Safety Meetings only and did not have public performances. The coach cleaners were often over the entire Safety Meeting programs.
2. Were there many African American coach cleaners in Kentucky?
There have been a few African American coach cleaners employed at Kentucky train stations and yards. There were less than five in 1900 and up to 32 in 1950. African American coach cleaners in Kentucky were hired in greater numbers at the Louisville and Paducah train stations.
3. Were African American coach cleaners regarded with trepidation?
When there were newspaper articles that identified an African American coach cleaner, the focus of the story was usually around some tragedy. Early articles told of African American coach cleaners who had horrible deaths or were seriously injured while on the job. Such stories did not explain that African American coach cleaners' job duties included much more than janitorial work and that those other assigned duties carried a high degree of risk. African American coach cleaners were not union members and were denied advancement opportunities to positions of less risk.
A coach cleaner is a person responsible for washing, sanitizing, and cleaning the interior of passenger train cars and coaches. The term coach cleaner can be found in British newspapers in the early 1800s. It is not known exactly when the term was commonly used as a job title in the United States. The term is still used as a job title today, with current coach cleaners' earning between $22,000-$42,000 per year. In 2022, the median wage was $17 per hour for coach cleaner jobs advertised by Amtrak.
AFRICAN AMERICAN COACH CLEANERS
It was in the 1890s when train companies began to hire more African Americans. In prior decades, African American coach cleaners were not often mentioned in newspapers unless there was a death or injuries. An 1872 article in the Bristol News (Tennessee) newspaper described James Heiskell as a colored coach cleaner, a "Brave Boy" who put his life on the line to save others during a train wreck. Heiskell's injuries were such that he would not survive. He was employed by the East Tennessee & Georgia Railroad. In some newspaper articles, Heiskell is said to have been the train brakeman. He probably had both job duties.
DUTIES, DEATHS, AND INJURIES IN KENTUCKY
In 1907, African American John Pope was employed by Southern Railway in Louisville. He was killed while attempting to couple two train cars. Pope was 32 years old with a wife and family all living at Twenty-six and Green Alley in Louisville. John Pope's job duties were mentioned because of his death. It bears saying again that finding the names of African American coach cleaners in early newspaper articles will often be in conjunction with finding a story about a pistol fight, an accident, or a murder.
In 1908, a front page news story in Paducah, KY reported that former coach cleaner Frank Curd attempted to shoot and kill his estranged wife and himself. His wife survived and Curd died. Frank Curd was 55 years old. He had been employed as a coach cleaner by the Illinois Central Railroad and had left the railroad company to work as a deck hand on a steamboat.
Five years after Curd's death, African American coach cleaner Jeremiah Reed was killed while passing between two unattached coach cars. Fifty-year-old Reed was delivering ice to the cars when he was killed. He had been employed with the Illinois Central Railroad Company for 26 years. He lived at 821 S. 12th Street in Paducah. Three months later, in Paducah, African American coach cleaner Larsie Clark was injured outside a coach car when a large piece of ice fell from the top of the coach and struck him in the head. Clark was employed by the Illinois Central Railroad Company; the train was stationed in Paducah. Clark was taken to the Illinois Central Railroad Hospital for treatment.
None of the men mentioned in this section died or were injured while cleaning the coach cars.
LABOR STRIKES AND THE HIRING OF MORE AFRICAN AMERICAN COACH CLEANERS
The gore of death and injuries is there in print. Still, newspapers are a particularly good source for locating information about African American coach cleaners over the past century or more.
There are also the census records, though the term coach cleaner has not always been used to name an individual's employment title or job duties. In the 1880 U.S. Census, approximately 11 coach cleaners were enumerated. Seven of them were immigrants from Denmark, England, Ireland, Sweden, and Switzerland.
During the 1880s, there were many newspaper articles about the railroad employee strikes by coach cleaners, car repairers, and other laborers who may or may not have been union members. The employees were demanding higher wages. In the 1890s, there were also articles about railroad company layoffs and the firing of those on strike, including coach cleaners. U.S. troops were used to guard the railroad property in Chicago. During the years of intense labor disputes, railroad companies began to hire more African American coach cleaners to replace those on strike or who had been fired.
In addition to other sources already mentioned, the names of African American coach cleaners in Kentucky can also be found in city directories. A suggested list of directories includes those for the cities of Ashland, Bowling Green, Covington, Hopkinsville, Lexington, Louisville, Ludlow, Maysville, Middlesboro, Newport, and Paducah. Robert H. Green is one name found in a Lexington city directory for 1898-99. Green was an African American coach cleaner employed at the Lexington & Eastern (L & E) Railroad yard. Green and his wife Martha lived at 26 Ellerslie Ave. Source: Emerson & Dark's Lexington Directory, 1898-99, p. 483. The L & E train ran the 92 miles between Lexington and Jackson, KY.
By 1900, approximately 62 African American "coach cleaners" were enumerated as such in the U.S. Census records. There may have been more whose job titles were not listed as "coach cleaner." There is a discussion of the increase in African American railroad employees in Greene and Woodson's book, The Negro Wage Earner, chapter VI, "Trade and Transportation to 1917." The job of coach cleaner is not mentioned specifically in the book, though these employees would have been included as steam railroad employees. In the 1900 U.S. Census are the names of the African American coach cleaners in and from Kentucky: Dilla Wright and Albert Just in Bowling Green; Sam Halsey and Leonard Brown in Denver, CO; Charles N. Anderson in Kansas City, KS; and Henry A. Griffin in Waco, TX.
AFRICAN AMERICAN COACH CLEANERS EMPLOYED IN KENTUCKY
In the 1920 U.S. Census, about 1,929 coach cleaners are listed with at least 545 of them African Americans. Thirty of the African American coach cleaners were all males in Kentucky except for female Pearl Sherrill in Paducah. These coach cleaners in Kentucky were located in six cities: one in Bowling Green; 12 in Paducah; one in Princeton; three in Fulton; nine in Lexington; and four in Louisville.
In 1922, there was a strike at the railroad companies in Lexington. The coach cleaners were said to be one of the labor groups that had quit. It was reported in the Sunday Morning Lexington Leader to be a false claim that the colored coach cleaners (who were still on the job) were not affiliated with any organization (union). They were said to be members of the carmen's organization with a lodge in Lexington.
It is unknown what carmen's organization is being referred to in the Lexington newspaper article. Women and African Americans were denied membership in the Brotherhood Railway Carmen of America. The Colored Coach Cleaners Union was located in St. Louis, MO. No references have been found about a lodge in Lexington. The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters was not established until 1925. See sources in Hathi Trust Digital Library.
By 1925, the Coach Cleaners' Quartet had been formed at the Louisville Nashville (L & N) Railroad Company in Lexington. The members were Joe Chandler, U.S. Grant, Arthur Higgins, and Eddie Anderson. The men sang several selections at the L & N Lexington Shops [labor divisions] Safety Meeting held in October 1925. The meetings were held monthly and the Coach Cleaners' Quartet sang at each meeting. The meetings were held to extoll how well L &N took great care to provide a safe work environment for their shop employees, including the African American employees.
At the December 1925 Safety Meeting, the L & N African American employees were in charge of the meeting program. The Coach Cleaners' Quartet sang several songs. At the June 1926 meeting, the coach cleaners were in charge of the meeting program. The quartet performed with members James Gant, Robert Harris, U.S. Grant, and Ed Anderson. Both Gant and Harris were new to the group; Gant also gave the coach cleaners' report during the meeting. In December 1926, the African American employees again led the Safety Meeting program. Ed Anderson gave the coach cleaners' report.
African American employees were in charge of the June and December 1927 meetings with James Gant as the chairman. U.S. Grant gave the coach cleaners' report in June and Ed Anderson gave the report in December. By March 1928, the Coach Cleaners' Quartet had become a trio: James Gant, Eddie Anderson, and Robert Williams. One of the last newspaper articles about the L & N Safety Meetings was published in the Lexington Leader, 6/16/1928, on the front page. The coach cleaners were in charge of the meeting program with James Gant as chairman. The Coach Cleaners' Trio sang several song selections. Robert Williams gave the coach cleaners' report.
Years later during WWII, the number of African American women coach cleaners in the United States (967) was included in the 1945 publication Negro Women War Workers, by the Women's Bureau in the U.S. Department of Labor. With the majority of the coach cleaners being men, the numbers were greatly reduced when the men left their jobs for military service. Women coach cleaners were hired to replace them.
In 1950, the overall number of coach cleaners was about 4,770, according to the U.S. Census records. A little less than half of these coach cleaners, 2,264, were African Americans, 32 of them in Kentucky: one each in Ashland, Elkton, Fulton, Hopkinsville, and Maysville; two in Lexington; and 25 in Louisville.
CURRENT JOB INFORMATION
Today there are 1,298 coach cleaners employed in the United States, 11.5% (149) of whom are Afrian Americans [source: Zippia]. In the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, coach cleaners fall under K453 (Janitors and Cleaners). Additional information about becoming a railroad employee can be found in the Occupational Handbook (online). A definition of the term coach cleaner and how to become a coach cleaner can be found on employment company websites such as ZipRecruiter. Current statistics about coach cleaners [gender, race and ethnicity, wages, age, education level, industry employers, turnover and employment numbers, and much, much more] are available online at websites such as Zippia.com.
SOURCES FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION
Newspapers are a useful source for locating the names of persons who were employed as coach cleaners: search the articles and obituaries. Newspapers also provide information about the railroad companies, historical events, and actions and reactions of the general public and government agencies. City directories also contain the names of coach cleaners and the companies by whom they were employed. Older city directories for Kentucky locations will often have notations to indicate if the person was African American. Other sources include marriage and military records that will often include occupations. Newspaper want ads will provide the names of companies looking to hire coach cleaners. See also government publications such as the Railroad Shopcraft Factfinding Study, September 1968, prepared by the U.S. Department of Labor (available online at Hathi Trust Digital Library). Special collections and archives in various libraries may hold the records of railroad companies.
Sources used in developing this entry: "Horrible accident," Bristol News, 10/8/1872, p. 3; "Terrible disaster," The Memphis Daily Appeal, 10/8/1872, front page; "Negro coach cleaner killed between cars," The Courier-Journal, 3/3/1907, p. 5; "Frank Curd, Colored, shoots wife then kills himself--she lives," The Paducah Evening Sun, 2/15/1904, front page; "Negro crushed in the yards," The Paducah Evening Sun, 12/17/1913, front page; "Car cleaners go out," The Topeka Capital, 3/13/1888, front page; "Northwestern lays off 10,000 men," The Muncie Daily Herald, 7/04/1894, front page; "Military law," Buffalo Evening News, 7/5/1894, p. 6; The Negro Wage Earner by Lorenzo J. Greene and Carter G. Woodson; "First strike week very quiet here," Sunday Morning Lexington Leader, 7/9/1922, p. 16; Eric Arnesen, "Like Banquo's Ghost, It Will Not Down": The Race Question and the American Railroad Brotherhoods, 1880-1920," The American Historical Review, vol. 99, No. 5 (Dec., 1994), pp. 1601-1633; "Safety Meeting at L. & N. Shops," The Lexington Leader, 10/15/1925, p. 9; "Safety Meeting," Lexington Leader, 12/15/1925, p. 11; "L. & N. Safety Meet, The Lexington Leader, 6/15/1926, p. 13; "Safety Meeting," The Lexington Leader, 12/15/1926, p. 3; "Safety Meeting, The Lexington Leader, 6/15/1927, p. 19; "No accidents mar L. & N. Shop record," The Lexington Leader, 3/15/1928, p. 15; "No accidents since Dec. 13 at L. and N., The Lexington Leader, 6/16/1928, front page; and Negro Women War Workers Bulletin No. 205 by the Women's Bureau, United States Department of Labor, April 6, 1945 (online at Hathi Trust Digital Library).