From the day it was finished in 1903 The Southern Railway Station on Depot Street was remarkable in several ways. It was overcrowded, for one thing, an unwelcome surprise to the architect, who had apparently miscalculated. The mortar had hardly dried between the bricks before people were complaining it wasn’t nearly big enough for the job.
It had a tall clock tower, with clocks facing in each of the four directions., addressing a long-expressed need. To catch your train, you need to know exactly what time it is. The station was also perfectly symmetrical.
Symmetry is often considered good in architecture, in general, but in this case the law seemed to demand it. Train stations were to be segregated. And the only way segregation could be legal, the Supreme Court had recently opined, was that accommodations be “equal.”
In the Southern station, white people went to one side, African Americans to the other. On paper, at least, they were equal, in square footage of the waiting rooms.
Right in the middle, as you walked in, was the common foyer. And there was one face you’d see there every day, a woman in uniform and a white hat. Her name was Maggie Lattimore. No one spent more time in the building in the early decades. Although she was an African American in a segregated train station, she often seemed to be in charge, catering to passengers of all colors. If there was trouble, she would fix it. She was the station matron.
There was a time when everybody knew Lattimore, “Aunt Maggie,” as some knew her. If you walked into the Southern Railway depot any time before World War II, she’d be the first person you saw.
She was, according to one contemporary account, “the most widely known Negress is this section of the South.”
Little is known about her early youth. She was born in Madisonville–somewhere between 1856 and 1862, according to nine decades of estimates of her age. Of course, all those dates suggest she may have been born in slavery, but that she would have been very young at the time of emancipation. According to one account, “she had received an education and was said to have planned to teach when she was a young girl.”
Her father’s name was Aaron Lattimore, and at some point he got a job in Knoxville, working in the yards of the East Tennessee, Virginia, and Georgia Railroad. Maybe it didn’t have a name euphonious enough to appear in popular folk songs, but for 25 years in the late 19th century, the ETV&G was one of the South’s biggest railroads, a major inland connector that gave the Deep South a conduit to the urban Northeast. Its headquarters was in Knoxville, and its main regional station was on Depot Street, just on the west side of Gay.
Soon after the Civil War, his older daughter, Mary Susan, got a job as maid at Knoxville’s main train station, the East Tennessee, Virginia, and Georgia. Maggie sometimes helped Mary Susan, and was working in the station as a teenager, perhaps as early as 1875. In later years she would recall all the big shots coming and going through the station back in “the ’70s.” As a 20th-century reporter noted, “she recalls when there were few houses north of Depot Street, when North Knoxville and domains beyond were al bleak forests and fields.”
At some point, the railroad gave Maggie Lattimore an unusual title. By several accounts, it was at the beginning of January 1881, that the railroad began referring to her as the station Matron.
It was apparently an unusual hire, not just because she was Black. In the 1880s, almost all railroad-station staffers were men. Maggie Lattimore was said to be East Tennessee’s first railroad-station matron.
“Dressed in an immaculate uniform, and white cap,” Knoxville Journal columnist Charles Patton later remembered, “the little woman was always ready for the arrival of passenger trains, 12 hours every day and Sunday.” Patton recalled, “She was well informed about affairs in the city and could direct persons to places they were hunting.”
The promotion was likely a matter of pride for her father, who had worked for the ETV&G for many years. But his story adds some complication to hers.
It would appear that her father, a railroad employee at age 70, was the Aaron Lattimore who was unloading coal from a train near the station late the following September when there was a mistake, and he was run over. He died soon after. “The deceased was an aged and respected colored man,” reported the Daily Chronicle. “He leaves behind a large circle of family and friends.”
With African American Rev. George W. LeVere, pastor of Shiloh Presbyterian, representing the family, the accident was formally blamed on the railroad, which two years later was adjudged to owe Lattimore’s family $800—perhaps $20,000, adjusted for inflation.
Lattimore, who was notable for her work ethic and loyalty, may have had complicated feelings toward her employer.
In 1894, when she was in her 30s, a notable investor whose name was J. P. Morgan bought the ETV&G and made it a critical part of his latest project, the Southern Railway. Southern’s execs changed a lot of things about their operation, but saw the obvious value of a station matron, and kept Maggie Lattimore on their staff.
Samuel Spencer, the civil engineer who worked with J.P. Morgan to create Southern Railway, becoming its president, was especially impressed with Lattimore and sent her a letter of commendation, calling her the “Queen of Maids,” a title that probably seemed more agreeable at the time—and she was, by all accounts, much more than a maid. (Spencer was killed in a train collision in Virginia not long afterward, in 1906.)
A later president, Fairfax Harrison, who was also an attorney and historian, also offered his personal commendation to Lattimore in a letter. They earned her some positive notoriety unusual for a railroad-station staffer.
Her new title was Head Matron. She was a sort of concierge, a guide and troubleshooter, offering directions and help for passengers, but was especially attentive to women, children, the elderly and the disabled. Kids sometimes got separated from their parents in the crowded station, and “Aunt Maggie” was there to help.
“She is popular and often receives letters of appreciation for services she has extended women and children,” noted the Journal & Tribune in 1915. “She has aided hundreds of aged and crippled women to and from the trains.”
Once, when she helped an elderly couple into their seats in a passenger car, the man turned to hand her a tip, and she was already off helping somebody else. He mailed the $10 bill—the equivalent of maybe $200 today—to the station to pass it to the “Negro matron” who had assisted them.
She was also a one-woman Lost Objects Department. She often found jewelry, watches, fur coats, and cash-stuffed purses in the waiting room, and endeavored to reconnect them with their rightful owners.
Her good will even extended to helping the hungry. It was not unusual for women to be traveling with children but little or no food or cash. When Lattimore noticed someone who seemed in need, she would interview them. “She arranged some way to have them relieved, often buying food with her own money.”
At times, the diminutive woman was required to be fearless. Everybody came to the train station, and some were drunk or violent. “When any disturbance occurred, she was the first person in the waiting rooms to discover it. She would call officers to the waiting rooms to prevent trouble.”
She would have been here at the time of the violent Depot Street streetcar riot in 1897, just down the block.
No question, it was an exciting place to work. Buffalo Bill was there a few times. Saloon-buster Carrie Nation was there in 1902, raising hell just outside the station. In 1911, President William Howard Taft made a highly publicized visit, for a major banquet across the street at the big Hotel Atkin. The actual Liberty Bell came by the station one time on a flatcar, as did the body of William Jennings Bryan in a coffin.
She was there almost every day, typically working 12 hours a day. She was never gone for long except in early 1915.
There were some affluent African Americans in Knoxville at the time, professionals who lived in roomy houses with kitchens and gardens. To see her in her uniform, in charge of a hundred crises, you might think Maggie Lattimore might have been among them. She was not. At the time she lived in Buck Alley, a narrow residential lane within an urban thicket of short streets and alleys on the downtown side of Mechanicsville.
There were streetcars that went that way, but she lived a few blocks from the stop. She may have saved fare money by just walking home.
On her way home along McGhee Street one Saturday night in February 1915, when she was in her late 50s, Maggie encountered a “highwayman,” believed to be a white man, assaulted her, knocking her hard in the head and took her purse with her week’s earnings. She was in bed for days, and the assault apparently necessitated an operation a few months later. It was the first time she’d ever missed work.
Surely unnerved by the incident, she moved in with her sister, Elizabeth Mayhew, and her husband, Caleb, another Southern Railway employee, a “truckman.” They lived on Owen Street, on the east side of downtown. She would stay there for many years, seeing her sister through her final illness, finally living there alone.
But she returned to her post at the depot, now with a lighter workload; by the ’20s, she could go home after only eight hours, not 12.
By the time she was in her mid-60s, Maggie Lattimore was so beloved that she received regular notices in both newspapers, often in early January.
On Jan. 1, 1928, a News-Sentinel ran a story about her, noting that former Knoxvillians who returned home after decades of absence were sometimes disoriented by what they found. The old Flag Pond alongside the tracks had been filled in. There were several big buildings to the north of Depot. And the “new” station was much larger, and no longer where it used to be. Then they’d find Maggie Lattimore, standing at the top of the stairs. They’d say, perhaps with some relief, “Aunt Maggie, you are the only thing that looks the same!”
The reporter noted that the now-elderly matron sometimes “called the trains,” that is, announced the incoming trains to the audiences of passengers in the waiting rooms. It was a job that had been recently given to young men, but they were sometimes distracted and failed to do the job. The story quoted, her, “And the ladies tell me they can understand what I am saying better than when these boys call them.”
Lattimore was once said to have “excellent English” in speech, and when local reporters of either paper quoted her, it was without dialect or slang. None of them tried to make her sound comical.
Days after that story appeared, she had a moment of national fame, that may have been ambiguous for a woman who once aspired to be a teacher. A United Press story—perhaps based only on the News-Sentinel story–began appearing in newspapers around the nation. Unlike her quotes in more than a dozen local stories, she’s quoted as if she spoke in a minstrel-show dialect, with comical malaprops. “A lot of people tell me they understood my annunciation better.”
Thus, a competent woman with a responsible career became, in the perceptions of those who didn’t know her, a cheap joke. The story appeared that way repeatedly, over a period of three months, in dozens of papers from New Jersey to California, from Idaho to Ohio. That version seems not to have appeared in the Knoxville papers. Perhaps Matron Lattimore never heard about it. Or if she did, she chose to ignore it.
She began having health problems around that time, but kept working. During fall harvest season in 1934, News-Sentinel columnist Bert Vincent spotted her. She was moving slowly down Market Street, to take a seat on a bench in the Market House. A white woman who remembered her with gratitude for helping her family at the station during a crisis recognized her and asked her where she’d been. “Baby, I’ve been very sick,” Lattimore said. “But I’m able to get about now, bless the Lord.”
Vincent stated that she had retired with a “small pension,” but it sounds likely she returned for a little more work before she turned 80. Southern Railway, honoring her seniority with work she’d done for the previous company—pre-acquisition credit many modern corporations don’t respect—gave her a medal “as large as two silver dollars” with her name and half-century of service. At 80, she wore it on her lapel when she went out to shop and visit with friends at Vine and Central, the center of the African American community.
She stayed in her sister’s old house on Owen Street. About the time the war broke out, she moved to the public retirement facility, the George Maloney Home, out in the countryside of northeast Knox County, near the penal farm. Both were generally known as Maloneyville.
She had reportedly reached the age of 90 when she died there of pneumonia in April 1949. Charles Lattimore, who was likely a nephew, took care of the arrangements. (He had a job as public as hers, but was probably not quite as well known—he was a longtime trombonist for Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus.)
After a funeral at historic Logan Temple A.M.E., she was buried at Daughters of Zion cemetery, which is part of what’s now known as Oddfellows, near Five Points. After her death, the Knoxville Journal’s elderly local-history columnist, Charles V. Patton, wrote a tribute to her.
It’s likely that no one alive remembers Maggie Lattimore today. But she should be remembered. If we can’t find that medal she used to wear, maybe we can make a new one, and install it where she worked for most of her long life.
by Jack Neely, January 2021