All Aboard the Original Freedom Train

8 Oyster Car

By Ana Kinkaid

In the 1890’s, America’s newspapers largely printed stories that only provided coverage about the activities of whites. Occasionally, a random story would appear that mentioned the experience of blacks and immigrants, but only to sensationalize and exaggerate with tales of prison riots or immigrant thefts or murder.

The result of such biased coverage was to create an atmosphere of distrust and fear. People who spoke a different language or came from a different culture or religion were to be seen as harmful and not really Americans.

2 Robert Abbott
Robert Abbott

But one man saw the world differently. His name was Robert Abbott and he lived in Chicago. Through his efforts, America would change forever with a little help from trains and from oysters.

Abbott was born in 1870 to freed slave parents on St. Simons Island off the coast of Georgia, home to the Gullah people, an African-descended ethnic group that had continued stronger ties to their original African tribal heritage.

Abbott’s father died when he was a small child and his mother remarried John Sengstacke. His new stepfather’s parents had been a German sea captain and a woman named Tama, a rescued slave from West Africa, whom he married.

With such a background, it is not unusual that young Robert Abbott had a worldview broader than most. From 1892 to 1896 he studied the printing trade at Hampton Institute, a historical black college in Virginia.

Next he trained as a lawyer in Chicago and tried to set up a law practice in the South, but without success. By this time, the Jim Crow laws were in full force, restricting the rights of blacks and immigrants in every sector of life, including the right of a qualified black American to practice law.

Disappointed, he returned to Chicago to look for another avenue to effect change. With the help of an understanding landlady who lent him a spare room, he started a newspaper in 1905 with the modern equivalency of $7 that would soon grow to become the nation’s largest black newspaper, The Chicago Defender.

5 Chicago Defender Masthead
The masthead of The Chicago Defender

In that newspaper he wrote that truth often is like a pearl, hard and gritty at first, and difficult to face. But if one shines the light of honesty upon it, it will heal and come to glisten in the sun like a pearl. And then no one has to be afraid to speak or write the truth.

7 Pullman Porter with Oysters on Table
An ad featuring a Pullman Porter.

Because Chicago was the hub of the nation’s transportation system, he encouraged the oppressed Southern blacks to come North and seek a better life. The resulting mass black movement North is known as the Great Migration. Influenced by his stories of more humane conditions, thousands came North, fleeing the injustice of the post-Civil War laws, sometimes as many as 5,000 in a week to Chicago alone.

All of these people needed jobs. One of the most sought after jobs was as a Pullman Porter on the sleeper/dinner trains that criss-crossed the nation through Chicago because the they featured the bright blue and silver oyster cars and the tips were better because the celebrities preferred these trains.

Designed by A. E. Stillman, these unique rail cars carried fresh oysters from both coasts and the Gulf to diners in the Mideast. Eight cool salt water tanks hidden deep inside ensured the shellfish arrived in the very best condition.

In the dining cars attached to the trains, fresh savory oysters, served in such countless variations as Oysters a la Poulette, were always popular on the menus from which millionaires and movie stars dined.

But these trains carried more than oysters. The brave porters aboard these special trains often carried Abbott’s newspaper hidden in their suitcases to the many readers across the nation forbidden in the South to own or even read the publication.

These same porters would return from the South with endless hard-to-face but fact-filled stories about discrimination, lynchings, unfair wages and unequal education — all to appear weekly in The Chicago Defender Newspaper when no one else dared write about such injustices.

This little known story is truly part of our American culinary history, not to be forgotten. It’s a story about a tenacious Chicago newspaper editor, a courageous group of Pullman Porters and some longed-for oysters aboard a train that changed a nation — asking it, like Abbott’s original imagery, to face the ugly truth of discrimination and heal it, until like a pearl, the nation shined bright and free.

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If you enjoy learning about culinary history and the chefs who shaped America, you can catch Ana Kinkaid at Cook. Craft. Create. ACF National Convention & Show in Orlando, Florida, July 9-13. She’ll be presenting on chefs and culinary history. For a taste of her presentation, check out her blog post on Why Chefs Wear White (and sometimes color too).

Kinkaid, Ana

Ana Kinkaid brings 25 years’ experience in the hospitality industry to her writing. As a world traveler, nothing delights her more than discovering an innovative restaurant or a unique ingredient.  Ana is a consultant to leading food companies and also speaks at major culinary conferences, often linking past culinary traditions to current and future trends. Her areas of expertise include culinary history, ethnic foods, terroir, wines and cocktails, as well as sustainable development within the food industry.

9 thoughts

  1. What a wonderful tribute to a very special man. I am so happy you posted this as I had never heard about this before. I’m sure history is full of these gems that need to be uncovered and shared.

  2. Excellent article.
    Both sensitive and informative on the history of black slavery and all the hardships endured.
    The oyster cars were much more than dining and drinking to excess.
    They were chugging along …day by day…wirh hopes and dreams of freedom along the way.

  3. I love reading about history especially culinary history and about acceptance of people from different countries and cultures. I did not get the connection between Pullman porters and oyster cars. Oysters were shipped by rail all over the country, sometimes as part of freight rains and sometimes added to passenger express trains. Porters had no interaction at all between the freight and serving passengers. You blended three unrelated stories into one.

    1. Hi Sharon,

      You can post this to your Facebook page by copying the link into your status update. Another option is to click the Facebook icon at the end of the post under “Share This.”

  4. Loved this blog post! Interesting man, history and food connection. The decadence of train dining with an oyster car in tow- who knew?

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