Alphonzo L. Holland
Al Holland was born in 1916 in Roanoke, Virginia. He attended the historically black Hampton Institute, now Hampton University, but did not graduate. He returned to Roanoke, got married, and began working for Norfolk & Western in 1938. He hired on as a janitor, the only job he could get at that time. His father, Gus Holland, worked for N&W as a laborer and a blacksmith, and his brother, Theodore Holland, also worked for N&W. Mr. Holland served in the army during World War II in the Philippines. He worked for N&W as a janitor, freight handler, watchman, and head clerk. He retired in 1985 as assistant manager in Tariff Compilations. He served forty-six years with the railroad. In addition, Mr. Holland was a member of the Roanoke Cardinals, a semipro baseball team; a Boy Scout leader for fifty years at High Street Baptist Church; and president of the Roanoke chapter of the NAACP in the 1960s and early 1970s, among other community affiliations. Mr. Holland was named Roanoke Citizen of the Year in 2003 and is a founding member of the African American N&W Heritage Group. Mr. Holland passed away on December 12, 2015.
Mr. Holland describes some of his early childhood experiences growing up on Eighth Street NW in Roanoke in a house owned by his parents. He remembers his father walking to work, his mother washing clothes on a washboard, the family garden, and remembers chopping kindling for the fireplaces. He recounts some of his experiences as vice president and president of the NAACP during the 1960s, including going to Selma, and helping to integrate local schools and lunch counters. He describes some of his experiences working at N&W, including what it was like to clean the cuspidors as janitor and an incident later when he was president of the NAACP. Mr. Holland recounts creating a course for the army reserves on African American contributions. He mentions the free train trips that he took with his family—on one occasion to watch Jackie Robinson play. He discusses, with fondness, singing with the Twilight Singers—a group of fifteen singing railroaders from the Roanoke Freight Station. Finally, he tells the story of where the phrase “cotton to silk” comes from: “That’s why I’m saying from ‘cotton to silk.’ We took what we could get, and we made a life for ourselves. Our children went to school. … We’ve got men coming down meeting with us, they’re engineers, conductors, firemen, those jobs are open to them. We had to take what we had down here because we weren’t going to get those jobs. But I lived to see them get it.”