While it’s well known that African American intellectual and civil rights leader W. E. B. Du Bois came from Great Barrington in western Massachusetts, it’s less well known that another great African American leader, Frederick Douglass, traveled extensively in New England. Of course he traveled by train, and experienced many examples of racial prejudice. But here’s the story of his encounter with George N. Briggs, the governor of Massachusetts from 1844 to 1851, while riding from Boston to Pittsfield. This is the train line we’re now trying to see brought up to standard for passenger rail service. Train Minutes come from the Train Campaign, the rail advocacy organization for Berkshire and Litchfield counties and the surrounding region, sharing a vision for passenger rail as the essential framework for efficient, sustainable transportation in the 21st century. Click below to listen. Train Minutes are also available on Spotify and iTunes.
Frederick Douglass wrote: “Riding from Boston to Albany, a few years ago, I found myself in a large car, well filled with passengers. The seat next to me was about the only vacant one. At every stopping place we took in new passengers, all of whom, on reaching the seat next to me, cast a disdainful glance upon it, and passed to another car, leaving me in the full enjoyment of a whole form. For a time, I did not know but that my riding there was prejudicial to the interest of the railroad company. A circumstance occurred, however, which gave me an elevated position at once. Among the passengers on this train was [Massachusetts] Gov. George N. Briggs. I was not acquainted with him, and had no idea that I was known to him. Known to him, however, I was, for upon observing me, the governor left his place, and making his way toward me, respectfully asked the privilege of a seat by my side; and upon introducing himself, we entered into a conversation very pleasant and instructive to me. The despised seat now became honored. His excellency had removed all the prejudice against sitting by the side of a negro; and upon his leaving it, as he did, on reaching Pittsfield, there were at least one dozen applicants for the place. The governor had, without changing my skin a single shade, made the place respectable which before was despicable.”