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Be careful not to call a vagrant or homeless person a hobo — although this is exactly what the word means, it’s considered an offensive term. The end of the nineteenth century brought the start of the word hobo in the Western US. No one is certain where hobo originated. One possible origin is the English word “hawbuck”, meaning “country bumpkin,” while another is the common working man’s greeting or call during the building of the railroads “ho, boy!”
Hostility against hobos was high across the nation. Teen hobos were discriminated against, as they were widely viewed as bums, liabilities, and bad influences. Most parents forbade their children to speak with the teen wanderers, and most people shunned them and turned them away.
Furthermore, hostility toward African American hobos was even higher. Residual prejudices, especially in the South, played a role in aggressive acts against black hobos. Lynchings still occurred, and it was risky for African American hobos to travel through southern states.
“If it was white kids, they fared better. If it was black ones, you did not,” states African American hobo boy, Clarence Lee. “Some [landowners] would turn you down and some of them didn’t want you on their premises to go ask for nothin’. But a white one [teenage hobo] was treated much better. They might let them stay in a house with them, but me, I could sleep in a barn with the mules and hay… My worst fears was bein’ shot by some farmer who didn’t want you around.”
Hobo Ben Fowler wrote, “These three fellas started working a con game so I told them to leave us alone. One of them jumped up and gouged me with a big, long pocket knife and then they took off. If the wound in my chest had been a quarter of an inch deeper I would have died right there.”
Read more about Hobo Life
ORIGINAL HOBO NICKEL SOCIETY A Dictionary of Old Hobo
THE AMERICAN HOBO – RIDING THE RAILS DURING AMERICA’S GREAT DEPRESSION, 1929 – 1942 by Mandy Youngguist