America’s first Transcontinental Railroad was built between 1865 and 1869. The workforce who built the railroad were largely Chinese immigrants working under difficult conditions to connect our nation from coast-to-coast. Laying tracks and breaking through granite and planting explosives that blasted through mountains, these immigrants played an integral role in the growth of America, but their stories are largely untold. Rep. Grace Meng (D-NY) shares her efforts to honor the memory of these laborers.
Recorded April 26, 2017. Hosted by Robert Traynham. Read a transcript of this interview below.
Traynham: America´s first transcontinental railroad was built in the 1860s, largely by Chinese immigrant laborers who sometimes worked under brutal conditions to build the railroad. Hello, and welcome to “Comcast Newsmakers.” I´m Robert Traynham. Joining me is Congresswoman Grace Meng, who´s a Democrat from New York. Congresswoman, welcome to the program. We´re living in a time where infrastructure is a really big topic. Roads and bridges are crumbling all across this nation, so it´s appropriate to hit the rewind button 150 years back and to talk about immigrants who built — the Chinese — who actually built the railroad.
Meng: Right. Thanks so much for having me, again, and this is an incredibly important topic and part of our American history. This is something that I wasn´t able to learn about as a kid growing up in America, but as we approach the 150th anniversary of the completion of this railroad, I just wanted to do whatever I could to highlight this part of history.
Traynham: Why are we not hearing about this over and over and over again? Why are we hearing about this now?
Meng: Well, first, I do want to thank the United States Department of Labor under President Obama and Secretary Perez and also Deputy Secretary Chris Lu, who had inducted the Chinese immigrant workers into the U.S. Department of Labor Hall of Fame to mark the anniversary that´s coming up next year. And so that brought a lot of attention nationwide to this subject. But now, like I said, as we´re coming up to the 150th anniversary, I think it´s a great time to highlight it.
Traynham: Congresswoman, almost three years ago, you introduced legislation to honor these American heroes with a postage stamp. Where are we at today with that legislation? Well, we knew it would be a long process, and I introduced this resolution shortly after they were inducted into the Department of Labor Hall of Fame, and, really, in advance of this 150th anniversary next year. So now and — This year and next year would be a great time to pass this resolution and to hopefully have our Citizens Advisory Commission to be willing and to agree to introduce a postage stamp to honor these workers.
Traynham: Congresswoman, as I understand it, this is something that is — These are unsung heroes. They built the railroad system coast to coast in many ways. Do you know why it was Chinese labor?
Meng: Well, a lot of the workers who had been willing to work under these really tough conditions —
Traynham: As I mentioned, brutal, brutal circumstances.
Meng: Brutal conditions — They were willing to work for very low wages, lower than the other workers who were working on the railroad, and literally helped connect the west to the east and brought down travel times significantly from about six months to a week. And so this is a part of history that I as an Asian-American kid growing up in America had never learned about.
Traynham: And I also think it´s important — You mentioned the travel times being cut. Travel times not just for humans — travel times for food, travel times for, obviously, soldiers getting from coast to coast. I mean, there´s a huge fabric here that was connected based on this labor that, to your point, should be recognized and highlighted.
Meng: Right, and it really helped boost the economy of the United States.
Traynham: Absolutely. Is this bipartisan, I assume?
Meng: I hope so. I hope it will be.
Traynham: And where is it in the United States Senate now? Do you know?
Meng: Well, we´re working with Congress. We´re working with the U.S. Postal Service, working with the Republicans. And so, you know, Congress sometimes can be a little unpredictable, as you know.
Traynham: You think?
Meng: So we´re hoping that we´re able to get this through.
Traynham: Outstanding. Well, to find out more information, I´m sure we can go to your website, and that is…
Traynham: Your website?
Meng: Oh, meng.house.gov.
Traynham: Thank you very much for joining us. Really appreciate it.
Meng: Thank you, Robert.
Traynham: And thank you for joining us. For more great conversations with leaders in your community and across the nation, visit comcastnewsmakers.com. I´m Robert Traynham.