(Originally posted to Facebook on February 23rd, 2021)
To help celebrate Black History Month, we would like to take a moment to tell you about some of the countless Black Americans who left their mark on the inland rivers. This is not always a comfortable history to research and discuss as, like in many areas of American history, the story of the river involves some of the most tragic chapters in our country’s past. The economy of the inland rivers was closely tied to the institution of slavery, while after the Civil War and abolition the river saw much of the same segregation, discrimination, and racism as the rest of the country. Despite these barriers, Black Americans made huge contributions on the river in ways that shaped the course of history. In this article we would like to honor these contributions and celebrate the people who made them.
Two maids on the steamer CHARLES REBSTOCK (ca. 1880)
After the Civil War, steamboats were a source of employment for many people who had formerly been enslaved. There were a number of important roles played by Black Americans on the river, and although the work was hard and the pay often low, their work as deckhands, firemen, porters, cooks, stewards, maids, and in many other positions was essential to the running of a steamboat. Many Black women in the Postbellum South found their best opportunities for employment as maids and cooks on steamboats.
While it was rare to see Black men as officers on boats, there were exceptions. Born in 1858 to enslaved parents, at the age of 19 Cumberland Posey took a job on an Ohio River steamboat and within a year had acquired his engineer’s license, becoming the first Black man to do so. Throughout the rest of the 1800’s and into the 1900’s, Posey (known as Captain Posey to his peers) continued his work on the river, eventually creating his own boatbuilding and steel shipping company in Pittsburgh and becoming one of the wealthiest people in the city, in addition to being an early leading figure in the city’s Black community. Posey’s legacy as a steamboat officer was carried on into modern times when, in 1970, Franklin Miles became the Chief Steward and first Black officer on the DELTA QUEEN, a boat many of our fans will have fond memories of.
Black Americans also played an important part in the development of river culture. Much of the food associated with the river was originally cooked by Black chefs in steamboat galleys, and Black musicians on steamers out of New Orleans were the people who originally popularized jazz music in the early 1900’s. Famous jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong even got his start playing cornet in Fate Marable’s band on the steamer SIDNEY. These cultural influences are still felt to this day.
Fate Marable’s Jazz Band on the steamer SIDNEY (ca. 1918). Marable is on piano, while a young Louis Armstrong can be seen 4th from the left.
This article has highlighted only a few of the remarkable stories of Black Americans on the inland rivers. We hope you found it interesting, and that maybe it will encourage further interest and research into the rich contributions of Black Americans to river history and culture.
Engstrom, Kadie. “Steamboat and River Connections to Black History”. (Educational pamphlet). Howard Steamboat Museum.
Engstrom, Kadie. “Steamboats and Slavery”. (Educational pamphlet). Howard Steamboat Museum.