"Longest Line of Communications Ever Employed...Perhaps the Most Vulnerable:” Comparing Racialized Labor Mobilizations from Periphery to Railroads for the Atlantic Powers’ during World War I

Michael Calderon-Zaks, University of California, San Diego

This paper intersects racial formation and world systems theories at the site of both—on the railroads that enabled core powers to dominate their peripheries. However, instead of a time-space analysis, this one is more about space. The limited time frame for this study is a critical one for the world system. By 1900, railroads enabled the world powers to control much of the periphery. Before World War I, the imperial powers could colonize a space with firepower against relatively unarmed native peoples with only minor assistance from the metropoles of power. However, during World War I, the railroads became critical to the survival of empires in a war between them. In Europe, rails were vital to the supply lines between production sites and battlefields. In the US, they were vital to producing supplies for the Britain, and upon entry, also important for military movement. Only upon the depletion of their domestic labor forces did Britain and France demand labor from their colonies to the Western Front, from as far as China and Southern Africa. Though their tasks were many, this paper only focuses on the construction and maintenance of railroads. Meanwhile, as the US entered the war, it increasingly depended on Mexican laborers for its western rails and African-Americans for its northern ones. The periphery-to-core migration of wartime laborers to maintain railroads was indeed a global one: Afro-Canadians of Construction Battalion No. 2 (Canada’s only ever all-black military regiment), Chinese via Canada, Black South Africans, and Maori New Zealanders crossed the Atlantic to the Western Front. Mexicans went north to the US to maintain the railroads in land that was once Mexico, and beyond. On both continents, these laborers were more critical to preserving empires than they are remembered for, while contradicting the white supremacist narratives that rationalized imperialism.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 223. Of Proletariats and Professors: Race, Labor, and Mobility