Members of the African American Norfolk & Western Heritage Group in Roanoke stepped behind a curtain Tuesday morning and took their first look at how the Virginia Museum of Transportation will present their history.
“I think it’s great,” said Carroll Swain, 87, one of the group’s founding members. “Right now I think it’s something that people definitely want to see.”
This new exhibition, “From Cotton to Silk: African American Railroad Workers of the Norfolk & Western and Norfolk Southern Railways,” opens to the public Feb. 14. The show has been a long time in the making.
“It’s about 20 years coming,” said the Rev. Clinton Scott, who noted that he’s “only 93 years old.”
That makes him a junior to the Heritage Group’s elder statesman, Al Holland, 98, “and proud of every day of it.” The railroad hired Holland as a janitor in 1938, and he stayed with them through more than four decades. He’s a former president of the Roanoke chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Holland coined the phrase “cotton to silk” to describe the history of black employees of the Norfolk & Western Railway, now Norfolk Southern. His metaphor encapsulates the idea that in Roanoke, even in the days of segregation, black railroad employees were able to earn enough money to own homes, educate their families, and ultimately build a better world for the generations that came after.
“The cotton has turned to silk, and hopefully the silk can go on,” said Mary Lee Watkins Cabbler, who was the second black woman hired to work in Norfolk & Western’s office building in Roanoke. She started as a secretary, then moved to the personnel office, retiring from management after more than 33 years.
“From Cotton to Silk” is actually an expansion and refinement of the transportation museum’s 15-year-old permanent exhibition, “African-American Heritage on the Norfolk and Western Railroad.” It features video, reproductions of photographs from Norfolk Southern’s archives, and artifacts from day-to-day rail history, including a hammer handmade by Holland’s father.
“It’s visually different, it’s larger and it tells a more complete story of African-Americans on the railroad,” said museum curator and historian Deena Sasser.
Scott said, after taking a look at the new show, “It’s going to be a masterpiece for everyone to see.”
“It’s really mind-opening,” said Manuel Dotson, 65, a retired brakeman and clerk who joined the group about a year and a half ago. “I’m impressed by all of it.”
Sasser spent more than a year preparing the new version, though the project goes back still further. It started with the founding of the N&W Heritage Group, composed of retired and current black rail employees who have been meeting at the transportation museum the first Tuesday of each month for about 20 years.
The original exhibition featuring recorded oral histories opened in 2000, after Heritage Group members such as Swain appealed to museum staff to correct the under-representation of black workers in the museum’s offerings.
Holland and George Kegley, director of publications for the Historical Society of Western Virginia, determined that more of the group’s testimonies should be collected and preserved in a book. This ultimately resulted in the 2014 release of “African American Railroad Workers of Roanoke: Oral Histories of the Norfolk & Western,” compiled by Floyd historian Sheree Scarborough out of thousands of pages of interview transcripts on behalf of the Historical Society.
The new show at the transportation museum doesn’t conclude the project. A virtual exhibition is still in the works that will be made available on the Historical Society’s web pages.
At Tuesday’s preview, Swain pointed out a clay jug in the display case, wryly noting he used to keep corn whiskey in it. He also paid compliments to Sasser on the work she’d done.
“I’m so excited and I’m so happy that the guys are happy with it,” Sasser said, “because it’s for them.”
“I think it’s fantastic,” said Paul Washington, 83, who had a career at Norfolk and Western about as long as Holland’s, working track maintenance. “I’m proud to know the history and I hope that we never lose it.”
On the Arts & Extras blog
The Virginia Quilt Museum in Harrisonburg has opened a new exhibition, “Tales of a Mayan Huipil: Art Quilts Inspired by Guatamalan Weavings,” curated by Blacksburg-based fiber artist Paula Golden. To learn more visit blogs.roanoke.com/arts.