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NC Transportation Museum will let you walk through a Southern ‘Jim Crow’ train car

From the outside, Southern Railway Car No. 1211 looks like a solid antique passenger car from a bygone era when most people who traveled from one city to another went by train.

But it’s what was inside this passenger car that makes it something the N.C. Transportation Museum is eager to put on display.

In 1940, a dozen years after the car was built, Southern Railway had it refurbished to enforce racial segregation required by state Jim Crow laws. The car’s 44 seats were divided into two sections by a wall, with half in front for whites and half in the rear for blacks.

Those seats, shabby and torn, have been removed, and the signs that enforced segregation are long gone. But this week the museum announced that it had received a federal grant to restore the interior of the car to the way it looked during segregation.

“That is very much the intention, to make the Jim Crow era real to visitors by allowing them to walk through a car that once represented that separation of races,” said museum spokesman Mark Brown.

While old passenger cars are fixtures at rail and transportation museums across the country, few show how they looked during the Jim Crow era in the South. Another notable example is a 1922 Pullman Palace car on display at the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. It is also a Southern Railway car restored to how it looked in the 1940s.

Brown said the seats in the two sections of car No. 1211 were the same, but there were other differences to signal that “colored” people weren’t as deserving as whites, including smaller bathrooms. And at a time when train cars generally moved in one direction, the African-American section was in the rear of the car, he said.

It’s not clear how long car No. 1211 remained segregated; the Supreme Court declared in 1950 that segregated dining cars violated federal law, but states continued to enforce segregation laws until the 1960s. Southern continued to use the car until 1969.

The N.C. Railroad Company acquired the car in 1980 and donated it to the transportation museum. The museum restored the exterior and put it on display in its roundhouse in 1996, Brown said. The public will be allowed inside the car for the first time after the restoration is completed, likely sometime next year.

In additional to restoring the seats, the $287,442 grant from the National Park Service will allow the museum to remove asbestos and lead paint, restore the floor and walls and deal with rust and other structural problems.

Car No. 1211 will be the museum’s most explicit illustration of how segregation was enforced in transportation in the South. In the Barber Junction depot, an old train station that serves as the museum’s visitor center and ticket office, a sign notes where a wall once separated waiting rooms for white and black passengers. And a trolley car in the roundhouse has segregated sections, but the interior is not open to the public.

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Richard Stradling covers transportation for The News & Observer. Planes, trains and automobiles, plus ferries, bicycles, scooters and just plain walking. Also, #census2020. He’s been a reporter or editor for 32 years, including the last 20 at The N&O. 919-829-4739, rstradling@newsobserver.com.
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