Cover of the book Riding Jane Crow features a sepia-toned photo of a Black woman in 1920s-era clothing hanging on the side of a freight train. To the right of the book cover is a black-and-white photo of Miriam Thaggert, wearing glasses and a dark turtleneck sweater.
Cover of Riding Jane Crow; author Miriam Thaggert Credit: Courtesy University of Illinois Press

There’s a whole lot of story in history. And so much depends on the perspective of the storyteller.  

What, for example, will the future think it knows of our fraught time? What will be included? What will be omitted? What will be the spin on events like the war in Ukraine or the 2020 presidential election?

Miriam Thaggert has been thinking about this sort of thing since a visit to the Newberry Library’s vast Pullman Company archives in 2014 sent her on a long detour through 19th- and early 20th-century American history. Thaggert, now a literature professor at SUNY Buffalo, had been skimming through the employee records of the famous all-male, all-Black Pullman Company porters for a book she was planning, when she stumbled on something she didn’t expect: an application from a woman. 

It set her off on a different track.

“I had never heard of Pullman maids before,” Thaggert says, but that was the position this woman was seeking. “It made me start to think about what the experiences of Black women in that company might have been like. And that led to questions about the experience of other Black women on the railroad,” passengers as well as workers.

The result, after a return to the Newberry in 2015 for an academic year fellowship and much additional research, is Riding Jane Crow: African American Women on the American Railroad, published this month by University of Illinois Press.

“One of the things I’m hoping to get people to think about is the national narrative we tell about the railroad,” Thaggert says.  

Looking mostly at the years between 1860 and 1925, Thaggert found that railroad travel, romanticized by countless white male writers, was a very different experience for Black women, who were often forced to ride in Jim Crow cars even if they’d paid for first class tickets. (Ida B. Wells sued twice over this.) As passengers at that time—“a period of intense racial activity when Black political and economic advancements precipitated widespread violence against Blacks”—Thaggert writes, they had to worry about possible verbal or physical assaults by other passengers or even by the all-white conductors. Any kind of fuss could lead to ejection from the train or a trip to jail. 

“America’s valued progress narrative, a story so often symbolized by the railroad,” is challenged by the experience of Black women, Thaggert wound up writing. “The nation’s mechanical trajectory ‘forward’ has, embedded within it, the retrenchment of African American social progress.”

Thaggert has curated an exhibit, “Handmaidens for Travelers: The Pullman Company Maids,” on view at the Newberry through September 16. A concise walk through a central chapter of the book, it’s a chance to see actual documents from the archive. These include a page from the company’s detailed Instructions for Maids (No wearing of rouge or powder!), and advertising photographs that show pampered white patrons getting manicures and hairstyles en route.      

On June 29, Thaggert will be back at the Newberry for the Riding Jane Crow book launch and a discussion with University of Pennsylvania history professor Mia Bay, whose own book, Traveling Black: A Story of Race and Resistance, recently won the 2022 Bancroft Prize in history. It’s free and open to the public.

Also, after a three-year COVID suspension, the Newberry’s annual used book fair—the major event of the summer for bargain-hunting bibliophiles—is back. Scheduled for July 29-31, with free admission and “many items priced at $3 or less,” it’ll be smaller than pre-COVID fairs due, in part, to a shorter collection period. But “smaller” is relative: 30,000 to 40,000 books will be offered in the usual dozens of categories, including lots of cooking, history, and fiction.

In conjunction with the book sale, the Newberry’s hosting “a day of storytelling” across the street in Bughouse Square (Washington Park), Saturday, July 30. Celebrating “the power of storytelling and its role in shaping our city,” it’ll include storytellers like Chicago Youth Poet Laureate E’mon Lauren, Lily Be, and Vincent Romero, as well as Dawn Turner, who’ll be receiving the Newberry’s inaugural Pattis Family Foundation Chicago Book Award for her memoir, Three Girls from Bronzeville.

If you’re moved to tell your own story, there’ll be a public open mike. You can also drop in on a performance of 100 Novels by artist Tim Youd, who’s been traveling for a decade, retyping the work of famous authors in locations relevant to the books. Youd will be retyping Nelson Algren’s The Man with the Golden Arm at the Newberry (where Algren researched the book) from July 26 through August 12. He’ll type the entire novel on a single piece of paper, backed by a second sheet of paper, both of which will then be mounted as art objects. There’s a tale looking for a teller there.