Signs reading “white” and “colored” appear once more outside separate waiting rooms in a century-old train depot in Orange, VA. The depot reopened February 21 after a restoration by the nonprofit Montpelier Foundation, which maintains the property for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and which made the unconventional decision in 2009 to preserve the original design in an attempt to bring to light the realities of segregation.
Built in 1910 on what was once James Madison’s estate, the Montpelier depot followed the standard plan used by southern railway companies at the time, with a wall separating the “white” waiting room from the “colored” one. Embedded in the midpoint of the wall was the station agent’s booth, from which the agent could look out into each waiting room through a different window. The depot was desegregated in the 1960s, and after train service ended in 1974, the building was taken over by the post office, which removed the wall, converting the “colored” waiting room into a lobby and the “white” one into a storeroom.
The Montpelier Foundation’s decision to replace the dividing wall was motivated by a desire to be truthful about the history of the depot and of the region, said Tom Chapman, research coordinator for the foundation. “We realized, looking around us in the local community, a lot of those segregated spaces that existed are hidden. They’ve been renovated or covered over and you wonder, why is this door here? Now we can tell that story,” Chapman said. The divided waiting rooms are accompanied by a plaque explaining the history of the depot and of civil rights in America.
Professor Robert R. Weyeneth, a professor of Public History at the University of South Carolina who specializes in the preservation of segregated architecture, pronounced himself “thrilled” with the example of Montpelier. “The tendency so far has been just not to think about it or possibly to erase it, by covering up the ‘colored’ balcony in a movie theater, for example,” Weyeneth said.
The few exceptions mostly come from Florida and Georgia, which Weyeneth has dubbed “pioneers” of this approach to preservation. “To the extent there has been interest in this general topic, it’s usually in the ‘heroic’ architecture of segregation,” he said, citing the recent example of the Rosenwald Schools, a group of southern schools which served as anchors in their rural African American communities, and which the National Trust is spending over $4 million so far to restore. “That’s the easy segregationist architecture to preserve. The tough stuff that is so sensitive is the architecture of white supremacy,” Weyeneth said.
Public reaction to Montpelier’s decision was mixed at first. “Putting the signs above the door brought out some very pointed comments,” Chapman said. “Some people said, ‘I’ve been there and done that, and I don’t want to see it again.’ And some people thought we were just doing it for shock value.” But many changed their minds after the foundation explained their rationale. “They may not all be happy with it, but they understand what we’re trying to do,” Chapman said.