This Segregated Railway Car Offers a Visceral Reminder of the Jim Crow Era
Subtle and not-so-subtle reminders of a time when local and state laws forced racial segration
One of the largest artifacts to demonstrate the cruel effectiveness of segregation under Jim Crow is 77-ton segregation-era railway car that goes on view at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture when the museum opens in September. It will give visitors the unsettling experience of actually stepping inside the segregated past when they walk through it to view it.
The restored Pullman Palace passenger car, which ran along the Southern Railway route during the first half of the 20th century, serves as a central artifact in the museum’s vast inaugural exhibition “Defending Freedom, Defining Freedom: Era of Segregation 1876-1968.”
Walking through Southern Railway Car No. 1200, visitors will see there are no luggage racks in the “colored” section, requiring travelers to cram their suitcases around their feet, and that the “colored” bathroom is smaller and lacks the amenities of the “whites” bathroom.
“There are all these subtle and not-so-subtle reminders that ‘you are not as good as the people in the other section,’” says Spencer Crew, curator of the exhibition. “So often this era can seem abstract and far away for people, but this gives them a chance to travel back in time and see and experience it.”
Crew adds that the car speaks particularly to the challenges that African-Americans faced as they tried to move around the country. Train travel was the primary way people covered long distances in the United States until at least the 1950s. Since the segregation laws were almost entirely implemented in the South, this created strange situations for travelers moving between the two parts of the country.
“If you were coming from New York, when you got to Washington, D.C. you would have to make that switch,” says Crew. “Or in the Midwest, if you were traveling through Cincinnati when you got to the border with Kentucky, you have to make that switch.”
Acquiring the car and getting it to the museum has been no easy task. Early in the museum’s planning, director Lonnie Bunch, Crew, and others, including William Withuhn, curator emeritus of history, technology, transportation and business at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, began looking into how a segregated car might be acquired.
They reached out to Pete Claussen, the chairman and CEO of Gulf & Ohio Railways who had long worked with the Smithsonian as a member of its National Board. He was eventually able to track down this car, which was being stored at the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum, in Chattanooga, though was not on display.
“The car was on the Southern Railway route and it had been changed to become a segregated car,” says Michèle Gates Moresi, the museum’s curator of collections. “The effort and the money and brainpower that went into segregation was important to present.”
It was a car originally built by Pullman in 1922 as an open window coach, and was one of several cars selected to be converted at its Spartanburg, South Carolina, shop, to what the Southern Railway described as “69’-0” Part. Coach (Reclining Seats).” “Part.” was short for “partitioned” segregated cars—while “69'-0”” refers to the length over the end sills of the car.
Gates Moresi points out that records show it went to the shop again in the 1950s for more work, likely for some refurbishment since it was last in the shop 12 years earlier, coming out for service on the railway in 1952. “The partition was maintained after 1952, so we aimed to restore it to the 1940s look of the passenger car,” she says.
Of course, the passenger car had been out of service for decades, so it required extensive restoration work—removing considerable rust on the exterior and undercarriage, and testing for lead and asbestos. It was then restored to reflect the late 1940s and early 1950s structure under Jim Crow. The segregation laws were enforced until 1965. This didn’t necessarily mean a full restoration making it look brand new, but mainly ensuring that it looked era appropriate.
“It was pretty rusted out,” says Gates Moresi. “It took a couple years, from moving it (it was delivered to the museum on a flatbed, with several Washington, D.C. streets closed during its transport), to replacing fabrics and everything else.”
Since many of these cars had been discarded or upgraded by the rail company when the segregation laws were changed, finding these fabrics and replacement parts proved challenging. It was also costly. Fortunately, the museum’s team got financial assistance from Claussen (who donated funds toward the restoration work) as well as a Save America’s Treasures grant and grants from private donors.
Visitors will walk through the car and be given an introduction to travel segregation—that segregation was not limited to trains and if you traveled by bus or boat or even airlines, such divisions were strictly enforced. But beyond the realities of segregation, the car also offers an opportunity to discuss the role of Pullman porters and coach attendants—key figures in the African-American community.
“These were very well-traveled individuals, so they had a lot of experience and perspective to share with people they talked to as they were traveling across the country,” says Crew. “Their prominence and importance is an important part of the story.”
The museum is also incorporating audio into the artifact, so visitors will hear the voices of people in both the “white” and “colored” sections, having exchanges like one would likely hear at the time (for example, the voice of an African-American girl asking her mom why they can’t use the “white” bathroom and her mother saying that they aren’t allowed to).
“It’s always been part of the museum’s goal to make the experience as visceral as we can,” says Crew. “To do it with strong stories so people can feel close to the experience and this is one of those efforts to make that happen.”