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Picking up where his memoir, When We Were Colored, left off,...
Picking up where his memoir, When We Were Colored, left off, Taulbert recounts his 1963 migration from the small segregated Mississippi town of his birth to the big integrated city of St. Louis, where opportunity was everywhere. The realities of the North sometimes fall short of his fantasies, but he never loses sight of his dreams.
The Last Train North
It was a major news event. It was covered by Greenville's Delta Democrat Times, and all the major Delta radio stations sadly carried the news. It was a day of mourning in Greenville, Mississippi. For almost a century the Illinois Central Railroad had not only carried hundreds of thousands of southern blacks to the cities of the North, but also it had been one of the chief means of transportation for Mississippi Delta whites to travel to and fro. However, the economic considerations of the times and the changing modes of transportation had factored into the decision that caused the old train station to be draped in mourning garb. Today the last engine would puff its way north past Metcalfe into Memphis and eventually to St. Louis, a hub station where all passengers boarded different trains to their final destinations.
On this last day, hoping to be part of history, families were taking short trips. Children were watching as the era that ushered in their parents slowly faded into the distance. Cabs carrying hurried passengers would soon be vying for spots at the bus station instead of the Greenville train depot. Cleaning people who treasured their knowledge of the ins and outs of both the "colored" and "white" waiting rooms at the depot would be without work. The colored porters who loomed larger than life for those of us from the small rural communities would also say goodbye to the Illinois Central — a vehicle that had mobilized the muscles of the South to support the industrialized North.
The train had stopped serving my hometown, Glen Allan, Mississippi, almost twenty years earlier, and only the old folk still talked about those glory days. But Greenville was the Queen City of the Delta and we felt the train would pay homage to her position forever. From the train station located right in the heart of downtown Greenville, this major artery had served its time well. Now one of the South's busiest ports would become a relic, a place to renovate, a sight to point out as one passed walking or driving, a place of poignant memories. Here loved ones left and never returned, but here also had been the focal point of a romantic notion that brought travelling lovers home. Greenville was a queen and the Illinois Central had been a proper suitor, but now the romance was over. The queen was left with only a wooden building bordered by wood and iron rails as a reminder of an affair that had lasted for almost a hundred years.
A few months earlier, I too had been part of this history. I had been among the last residents of Glen Allan to ride the train north out of the Mississippi Delta. Perhaps it was known at the time of my ride that the train would soon stop running, but the news had not yet reached Glen Allan. I boarded the train that day with intentions of riding it over and over again to the South to visit. After all, Ma Ponk, my great aunt who raised me, had said more than once that the better class of people rode the train.
Excerpted from The Last Train North by Clifton L. Taulbert. Copyright © 1992 by Clifton L. Taulbert. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.