The Symbolic Meaning Behind Trains

Chapter one of John M. Giggie’s “Train Travel and the Black Religious Imagination” helps the reader understand the double meaning behind trains in films like “Hallelujah” by King Vidor and songs like “Death’s Black Train Is Coming” by Reverend J.M. Gates.
Railroads and trains were a site to see in the 1890s and 1900s. The railroads symbolized economic opportunity for both blacks and whites, “It offered the chance to migrate to new areas of opportunity, proselytize and distribute religious literature in distant counties, and hope for better markets for goods, services, and employment.” Giggie states.

In Reverend J.M. Gates song “Death’s Black Train Is Coming” he makes a reference to a morning train, “If you want to get on the morning train, if you want to go home and live in peace, you better have your ticket in your hand, standing by the station.” When Reverend Gates talks about the “morning train” he is talking about the train that will take you to heaven if you have faith in God. Therefore, you need to be waiting at the station (praying, attending church), even if you don’t know whether or not the train will come (faith). The morning train is also a reference to the economic opportunity the railroads brought to the south. It also brought hope to many blacks for a better life. Same in how believing in God helped oppressed communities survive in harsh conditions.

Reverend Gates also mentions a black train in his song, that arrives at night, “O the little black train is comin’ get all your business right, you better set your house in order, for that train may be here tonight.” Since the morning train is the one to heaven, the black train that arrives at night is the one that will take you to hell. This also has another meaning.

Giggie also mentions how the railroad was maintained through a racial caste, “As railroad workers, blacks were restricted to the ranks of firemen, brakemen, porters, redcaps, waiters, and the crews that laid ties, performed real maintenance, and cleaned and repaired locomotives and boilers. They were barred from applying for the best-paying jobs… As passengers they routinely faced the threat of being harassed, bludgeoned, shot, or lynched because of their skin color.” While the morning train in Reverend J.M. Gates “Deaths Black Train Is Coming” is the train associated with economic opportunity and heaven, the black train is associated with hell and racial discrimination.

In the film “Hallelujah” by King Vidor, we also hear references to trains. We specifically hear one when Zeek is with his brother trading in their cotton for cash. Zeek manages to gather a group of sharecroppers around him while he sings. “We will be singing at the end of the road, the light will be shining at the end of the road.”

Trains offer hope to many blacks and whites because of the economic opportunity it provided (not so much for blacks). Same as how God as provided hope for many oppressed groups in society; that not matter how much you struggle, if you believe in god, there will be light shining at the end of the road.

3 thoughts on “The Symbolic Meaning Behind Trains

  1. I really like your connection to trains towards the end of your blog post. I never truly realized how much of a correlation there was between trains and economic opportunity. At the time, trains were the main way for people to travel far distances, and in this case by living in the south, the majority of economic wealth was found in Northern States. Northern States were seen to offer individuals more economic mobility and freedom.

  2. There’s a lot to be said about the mobility of trains, and how they symbolize movement from one place to another. I think you have a lot of good information here, and if you really wanted to, you might be able to use a lot of these details to write a paper about how trains could represent specifically the journey from the physical world to the afterlife.

  3. Trains historically in the United States have had a power that you captured in this post. Aside from the economic opportunities which are vast, and the religious connection, trains make me think of the pioneer spirit. While a lot of American history books will make you think every pioneer was white, many were not, and sought life in the west so that they could find a better semblance of freedom and opportunity. The trains paved the way to make this possible, and the trains were made possible by many of the same non-white workers who built the railways.

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