Milton McDaniel: life of a southern Illinois trailblazer
February 17, 2021
When Milton McDaniel began his career in 1967 as the first Black fireman and engineer on the Illinois Central Railroad, Carbondale and the rest of the nation was a different place for Black Americans than it is today.
McDaniel, 71, of Carbondale, started as a fireman, which has nothing to do with fire-fighting, but refers to the person in charge of shoveling coal into the train engine to keep it running.
“Being a fireman was a hard job, when it was a steam engine. And in the South they had Black firemen, but even in the North, they still did not allow [them],” McDaniel said.
Eventually, as steam engines gave way to diesel engines in the late ‘50s, the need for firemen steadily decreased, which is what led to McDaniel’s promotion to engineer. The switch came with difficulties.
During his first trip sitting in the engine, McDaniel said two elderly white women refused to ride the train. He wasn’t sitting in the same place as the passengers, but five feet away from them in a space traditionally reserved for engineers, but they refused to ride in the train because he was there.
“I wasn’t touching the throttle at all. I was just sitting there. I thought to myself ‘well if that’s the way it’s going to be that’s just the way it’s going to be because I get paid whether there is one person on this train or not,’” McDaniel said.
Despite the discrimination, McDaniel continued riding the rails.
Because he wasn’t allowed to sit in the regular passenger seating (those were considered “first class” seats), McDaniel would often ride in the baggage car. Sometimes the car carried caskets home from the Vietnam War.
“Almost every time I was on that train there was caskets, and […] I was somewhat afraid, I’ll put it that way, but I had to ride back in the baggage car with the caskets,” McDaniel said.
McDaniel said despite discrimination by some passengers, he was always supported by then railroad superintendent, Harry Koonce. Once, when several railroad workers traveled down to Cairo, Illinois, McDaniel was denied service at a local motel.
McDaniel was then forced to walk 12 miles to his then girlfriend (now wife’s) home so he had a place to spend the night. When word got back to superintendent Koonce, he called and told the proprietor of the hotel if he was going to deny service to a young Black man, then none of his railroaders could stay at the hotel.
“[He said] I will pull every one of them out of there and I’m sure your business will fall. […] You can’t be supported if the railroad men don’t stay there,’” McDaniel said.
McDaniel said he tries to return that kindness by giving back to the community, and particularly to young Black people who look up to him as a community trailblazer.
McDaniel said it’s important for young Black children to be able to see Black people in all different careers and to take pride in what they are passionate about.
“I think I made some of them proud because I was now in a position that was only held by white people,” McDaniel said.
That pride and passion is what has kept McDaniel coming back to the railroads for over 50 years.
Today, McDaniel volunteers at the Carbondale Railroad Museum, where there are photographs that bring him back to those train rides in the late 1960s.
When he retired from the railroad back in 2017, he remained involved as a volunteer for the museum.
He remains partial to one particular era of history that is highlighted at the museum.
“It’s just great to come in and look at the exhibits that they have, especially old photos from the roundhouse, where some of the men that were still there working whenever I hired out and at that time, even in some of the photos there were a lot of people of color that worked for the railroad out in the roundhouse area,” McDaniel said.
The roundhouse is a building that is used to store and service the locomotives.
“They would get [their] wheels oiled and greased, make sure that there was enough oil and grease on them,” McDaniel said.
Despite the fact that he still faced difficulties due to his race, McDaniel is incredibly proud to have lived his entire life (minus a single year in St. Louis) here in Carbondale, Illinois.