NOVA Parks on Saturday unveiled a sign near the intersection of the W&OD Trail and Leesburg’s King Street telling some of intertwined story of Jim Crow laws and the railroad that once followed that path.
Jim Crow laws mandated separating people based on race in public spaces. On the railroad, that included requiring Black and white passengers wait for the train in different rooms and ride in different rail cars. When there was only one passenger car, Black riders were required to sit in the back, sometimes separated by a curtain, or face arrest and fines. The new sign tells some of that story.
The sign was unveiled during a chilly Feb. 19 ceremony that also featured brief speeches from local elected officials and Loudoun NAACP President Michelle Thomas.
“There’s an old adage that says that ‘he that does not know his history is destined to repeat it.’ I would add to that, ‘he that does not know his history or fails to preserve it is destined to repeat it,’” Thomas said.
She said the sign would stand the test of time as school curriculums change because of political leadership, and bring history into public spaces.
“We’re seeing history, as it’s staying in the past, it’s not staying locked up in history books. It’s not saying in the historic records of Loudoun County courthouse,” Thomas said. “It’s moving out of those dark places and spaces into the public spaces and the public recognition of all of our citizenship, and that is exactly where it can stay.”
“This will teach generations about the injustice, about African-Americans and the resilience of African-Americans,” she added. “When is see this and other interpretive signs like it, I don’t just see the suffering. I see the resilience.”
County Chair Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large) pointed out that the railroad has a complicated history dealing with racism in America. In addition to its role in racial segregation, it employed Pullman porters, many of them former slaves and exclusively Black until the 1960s. Many people called all of them “George,” after the company founder, George Pullman, rather than by their given names. Randall’s own grandfather was a Pullman porter.
But the first all-Black union to receive a charter from the American Federation of Labor also rode the rails: Pullman porters founded the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in 1925. It was one of the earliest Black-led unions in American history.
Randall said that complicated history made the railroads both an instrument of segregation and of lifting Black people into the middle class.
“This marker today that we’re doing is so important because the truth is, African-American history is not yet part of American history. And how do you know that? You know that like this: Everyone knows who Benjamin Franklin is,” she said. “Most people have no idea who Benjamin Banneker is. Everyone knows who Robert Frost is, most people have no idea who Phyllis Wheatley is. That’s how you know African-American history is not yet part of American history, but what we’re doing today moves us one step closer to that goal of having African-American history entwined—every story, every fable, all of it—into American history.”
NOVA Parks owns and manages the 45-mile W&OD Trai, which reaches from Purcellville to Shirlington following the path of a rail line which ran until 1968.
“NOVA Parks was created for and is dedicated to serve our many and diverse Northern Virginia communities,” stated NOVA Parks Chairwoman Cate Magennis Wyatt. “Unlike many park systems, our mission, in addition to creating places for recreation, is to ensure our shared historic places are conserved and our stories memorialized, even if those stories hold up a mirror to some of our worst moments. As all can attest, today the W&OD Trail serves millions of visitors each year—visitors of every race, ethnicity and religion, and each citizen enjoys it with equanimity. But lest we forget, while this was a railway, that certainly was not the case. Indeed, it is important to remember that inclusion and justice were not often valued, in this part of the country throughout the first half of the 20th century, when discrimination was the law. “