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Waterloo’s Railroad Development

African American Railroad Workers

Illinois Central Railroad Locomotive Workers, circa 1920

During the early years of the twentieth century, African Americans living in southern states moved to northern cities where jobs could be found. Sometimes crop failures motivated them to move. Racial hatred and prejudice also caused African Americans living in the south to look for work in states to the north.

While many African Americans migrated to large cities, a smaller number moved to communities like Waterloo. Between the years of 1910 and 1920 the small community of African Americans in Waterloo expanded from a handful of isolated residents to an active community boasting more than 800 members.

In 1911, a national railroad strike stopped the trains. Workers in Waterloo refused to work unless the Illinois Central Railroad Company ICRR provided better work conditions and higher pay.

In response, the ICRR transferred many African American workers from Mississippi to Waterloo. At first, most African Americans had to live in box cars in the rail yards. Because of segregation and prejudice, African American workers were not welcomed to move into most of Waterloo’s neighborhoods.

Later they came to live in homes in an area shaped like a triangle bordered by Sumner and Mobile Streets and the rail yards. As this neighborhood developed, churches and businesses were formed, becoming the core of the community. African Americans not only helped to build the railroad, but also helped to create Waterloo’s diverse cultural heritage.


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