Montpelier train station preserves the architecture of segregation
Sunday, February 28, 2010
Two things distinguish a small 1910 train depot a few miles south of Orange, Va., on Route 20. Newly renovated and with a fresh coat of marigold yellow paint, it looks as though it were built yesterday, as if the freight trains that still lumber by might actually stop and unload cargo. But it is the signs above the old waiting room doors at this abandoned Southern Railway flag stop that are the most astonishing feature.
"Colored" and "White." Built in the era of Jim Crow, the Montpelier Depot was constructed according to standard plans issued by the Southern Railway's Washington office, and the standard plans called for segregated waiting rooms. The train station, which sits on the grounds of James Madison's Montpelier estate, was recently restored, and when it was reopened to the public last Sunday, the old signs from the Jim Crow years were back.
The freight room of the station serves as a U.S. post office, but the rest of the building has been restored as an architectural reminder of what segregation looked and felt like. Signs inside and out make it amply clear that this is no sick joke or a monument to an ugly past. It's part of the nonprofit Montpelier Foundation's ongoing efforts to explore the full history of an estate owned by an architect of the Constitution, a landscape soaked in Civil War gore, in a state that embraced segregation early and clung to it to the very end.
William duPont, a powerful businessman and owner of Montpelier in 1910, built the small depot with his money. It served the trains that brought cargo and visitors to the estate, and it served duPont, who commuted between Virginia and Delaware. It was also used by African Americans who lived near Montpelier.
It wasn't an easy decision to re-create this small but evocative example of the architecture of segregation. Tom Chapman, who researched the history of the building, said he canvassed African Americans in the area about the idea. Reactions were mixed.
"Some looked at me and said, 'I've been there, I've done that and I don't want to see it again,' " Chapman said. This is the voice of fatigue, one of the toxic byproducts of oppression.
But there was a stronger argument. Segregation is part of local history, segregation was brutal and this building can make the emotional impact of segregation clear to generations born after the civil rights battles of the 1960s. Juan Williams, a National Public Radio and Fox News commentator who was invited to address the ribbon-cutting crowd, embraced this line of thinking.
"We're reminded of the psychological impact it must have had on those who came to a public space just to catch a train," Williams said.
Preserving the architectural remnants of segregation "is a preservation frontier," Robert R. Weyeneth wrote in a 2005 article in the journal the Public Historian. Weyeneth analyzed and classified past segregated spaces -- courthouses, hospitals, beaches, parking lots, bus stations, restaurants, schools, streetcars -- and noted that many of the physical remains of segregation had disappeared. Civil rights activists had worked diligently to remove signs over drinking fountains. The "colored" entrance had become the fire exit. The basement restroom was converted into a janitors closet. Urban renewal bulldozed much of the architecture of segregation, and many black-owned businesses, which catered to people excluded from whites-only establishments, didn't survive the economic shock of integrated shopping, dining and hospitality.
It is also easier, Weyeneth argues, to preserve the "heroic architecture" of segregation -- places of resistance, or alternative spaces where African Americans created vibrant and independent worlds of commerce, worship and social interaction -- than the darker, more shameful "imposed" architecture of separation.
But the Montpelier Depot demonstrates how volatile and disconcerting it is to encounter a fully preserved Jim Crow space. The building was rededicated as the country was still digesting an argument over the word "retarded," sparked by former Alaska governor Sarah Palin's angry reaction to White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel's recent casual use of it as a slur against liberals. These arguments are patterned and predictable as disputants jump between unrelated debates: about free speech and censorship, memory and forgetting, the nature of speech acts in a deeply ironic society, and the magic power of words to wound and change meaning.
These arguments never yield a consensus on whether linguistic taboos advance or impede social progress, whether it's better to take certain coins out of circulation or efface their old meanings and power. The Montpelier Depot, by contrast, is static, fixed, a relic neutered in part by the fact that passenger trains ceased to stop here more than 40 years ago. It reminds one of the past without reanimating it.