Racism on the Rails? That era’s Zion Curtain

Union Station Red Caps.

We all know that legally enforced apartheid — separation of the races — was common in the United States, including Utah, until the 60s, at least.

OK, longer.  We still have racism today. Ask any black person.

Ogden sees many remnants of this racism. Much of the city’s black population, in the 1950s, lived west of Washington Boulevard. You can say “well, they worked for the railroads so they lived close to work,” and you might be right, except in the 1950s the city was “red-lined.” That line went right down Washington Boulevard. How do I know this? In 1978, when I was looking for a place to live in Ogden, a real estate person told me so in so many words.

They city’s central business district was the same way. The south side of 25th Street was where the black businesses were, the north side was for the white. Never the twain met. The Porters and Waiters Club on 25th Street (south side) hosted world-famous black jazz performers in the 1940s because it was the only place in Utah where they were allowed to find a good room to sleep in.

But that was then. This is now and I have to admit, I am like most folks, I find it easy to let the mind drift and pretend that things weren’t really so bad “here,” where I am, that folks “here” were kinder and more intelligent and so on and so forth that the folks “there,” wherever that is.

And then BAM!, it hits you in the face.

So I’m looking through railroad cookbooks. Why?

The railroads used to run really well-appointed dining cars on their passenger trains. How well-appointed? Real silverware, real tablecloths, real china plates and elegant glassware.

There are some amazing recipes in these things. If you could order it at a 5-star restaurant in New York, you could order it on the train. Oysters Rockefeller, prime rib, three kinds of clam chowder, whatever. The variety of foods on the menu boggles the mind.

Union Station Red Caps in 1946. Their “place” was set downin rules and regulations.

We have a couple of these cookbooks, which are really manuals for the operation of the entire dining car, so they go beyond just preparing food. They also have detailed rules for operating the dining car, including personnel management.

And right here on page 10 of the 1927 “Regulations and Instructions, Dining Car Service” put out by the Office of the manager, Dining Car and Hotel Department, Ogden, UT., of the Union Pacific Railroad System, is this little nugget on where and when staff could eat:

“Train Employees (colored employes excepted) … may be served at any time after the start of the meal when there are vacant chairs, and they can be served without inconveniencing or delaying service to passengers.

“Colored Employes will ordinarily be served coffee and rolls at 6:30 a.m. and supper at 5:00 p.m., they to finish and be out of diner by 7:00 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. respectively, when regular calls are made for passengers. Breakfast and luncheon will be served them after passengers have been taken care of for those meals.

“Colored employees will be served at tables next to pantry, which sections have draw curtains for separating those tables from balance of dining room when in judgement of steward it is desirable to do so from standpoint of passengers observation, etc., and which applies particularly to breakfast and dinner service to colored employes in advance of regular call for passengers.”

So, got that?  White employees can eat during regular meal times, with the passengers, as long as the passengers can find a seat first.  White employees may be seen by the passengers. White employees are just fine to have around.

“Colored” employees, on the other hand, must eat quickly, quietly, and as much as possible out of sight of the passengers, especially during breakfast and dinner, when their appetites might be upset by the mere sight, the reminder of existence of, black folk.


A “Zion Curtain” for race instead of booze.

That’s how it was folks.