Riding the Rails North

William Fields

Donnie Roberts, "William Fields, 1984.  William Fields was 95 years old when Charles Hardy first interviewed him in March 1984. 

Experience the curated indexes of William Fields's oral history interviews.

William Fields was born in August 1889 on a farm in Denton County, Texas, where he helped his father grow sugarcane, which they turned into molasses. At the age of 17 he struck out on his own and soon met Maxie Gilbert, whom he married in 1905. The couple had a daughter and moved to Dallas, Texas, where Fields worked for the Western Electric Company. Despite having a family and a steady job, when given the opportunity to move north, he took it, and though his departure was spontaneous, he knew exactly where he wanted to go.

 “A lot of people from Dallas went to California... Instead of coming this way they went west. And I just longed for the name of Philadelphia, I just loved the name Philadelphia. So, I accepted to come this way.” – William Fields, March 23, 1984 

Marsh Creek Section of the Central Railroad, Philadelphia, PA

"Marsh Creek Section of the Central Railroad, Philadelphia, PA, August 5, 1938. During World War I the Pennsylvania Railroad housed its migrant workers in makeshift railroad camps well outside the city. Required to do backbreaking work for long hours and then eat and sleep in shanties, thousands of men who came north on the free transportation offered by the railroad quickly fled to Philadelphia for better jobs and living conditions.

In 1916, the Pennsylvania Railroad began offering free transportation north to African-American men  who agreed to work on the railroad. A year later, in August 1917, some fellows from Fields’s church decided to make the trip north and asked Fields to join them.

Oh, the railroad, they wanted you to work for the railroad, Pennsylvania Railroad, that’s why we’re supposed to work, and at a reasonable salary. I never did do no railroad work. – William Fields, November 11, 1984

According to Fields, there was no contract to sign: men simply wrote their name on a list, boarded a train and rode north in passenger cars, eating regular meals, like everyone else. After arriving at a railroad camp outside of Philadelphia, Fields learned that slipping away was not a difficult endeavor. 

We were supposed to stay at that camp... that afternoon when we arrived here, and two or three more fellows, we come on into the city.... I was to be uptown on a Monday and met this hotel man and got hired. And the next day, I was gone....” – William Fields, March 23, 1984

Harlem Street Scene

Harlem Street Scene, c. 1925, National Archives.  After his arrival, Fields was unimpressed by how people dressed in Philadelphia. He thought fashion was far superior in southern cities like Dallas, which rivaled New York City.

Fields worked at a hotel on the Jersey shore until the end of the season, in October 1917. Returning to Philadelphia, he worked at Strawbridge & Clothier, Baldwin Locomotive Works, and then the massive Hog Island Shipyard. There, too, he got to learn about his new home. 

“Well, I’ll tell you, I was a little disappointed in the style and the class of the city. Because I came from up-to-date city, Dallas has always been... next to New York in style.... Philadelphia was very slow at the time, very slow. In styling and everything else.” – William Fields, March 23, 1984


East from Central Time Station


East from Central Time Station, January 23,1918, Independence Seaport Museum. Thousands of workers, many of them southerners experiencing their first northern winters, worked in brutally cold weather to construct the Hog Island shipyard, including William Fields.

Before long, Fields learned something else about life in the North: winter is no joke. In the winter of 1917-1918—one of the snowiest winters in Philadelphia history—Fields found work helping construct the Hog Island Shipyward, soon to be the largest shipyard in the world, when everything came to a halt.

“I didn’t do much work that winter, because it snowed the whole winter. It was snowing from Thanksgiving, and it snowed until March, every night, every day. It sure did. That spring, I got a job on Hog Island, on the 50th Way, that’s the last way. And I worked there until we finished that way. And we were digging down in the muck. We thought we was digging rocks, and it was ice.”  – William Fields, November 11, 1984

Harsh winters made work difficult, but bad weather did nothing to hinder the Philadelphia night life, and neither did Prohibition. With the introduction of laws in 1920 banning the production, sale, and consumption of alcohol, the number of drinking establishments in the city actually increased. Though Fields took care to keep out of trouble, he did know how to have a good time.

“I learned how to make beer myself. I didn’t make no whiskey.... I didn’t try to live by it or nothing like that.” – William Fields, March 23, 1984

Over the years, Fields moved from one job to another, hoping to earn enough money to bring his wife and daughter up to Philadelphia. Not willing to wait, after several years his wife sent divorce papers. By 1930, however, he was able to raise enough money to bring his daughter north and they shared a home in Philadelphia until his death. Thinking back about his life-changing decision to move to the North, Fields had but one piece of advice:

“Well, when you’re going to do something like that [make a big move in life], you should consult somebody. I’ve learned since.” – William Fields, November 11, 1984  

Riding the Rails North