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ArlingtonEven when segregation reigned, there was some humanity on W&OD

Even when segregation reigned, there was some humanity on W&OD

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New informational signage details the history of segregation on the Washington & Old Dominion Railway that once ran through Northern Virginia, but deeper exploration of the topic also finds some instances where humanity won out against rigid separation of the races.

Consider the case related by stationmaster Don Leith, a W&OD employee from 1935-68.

In a history of the line, Leith recalled that, in 1941, the Herndon station’s waiting room for “colored” travelers (as the term then was) had been converted into an express office after passenger travel was curtailed at the start of the war. When passenger service resumed two years later, passengers of all races shared the same waiting room at the east end of the building.

The shared arrangement, Leith reported, “bothered no one, since it was a small community and everyone knew everyone else.”

But that proved a relatively small advance in a longer battle, and NOVA Parks (the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority) has now chronicled the history of segregation in local rail travel with new interpretive signage.

Community leaders gathered Feb. 19 at Bluemont Park in Arlington to formally dedicate one such marker. Similar interpretive materials are being placed in Fairfax and Loudoun counties.

“Knowing our past is important to understanding the present,” Arlington NAACP president Julius Spain Sr. said. “Injustice and inequity were built into the law and part of everyday life not that long ago.”

A few years after its closure in the late 1960s after 111 years in service, the trailbed of the W&OD Railroad came into possession of the regional park authority. Today, the linear park stretches 45 miles from Shirlington to Purcellville, providing a visually appealing route for walkers, joggers, runners, bicyclists and even those on horseback.

As the 20th century dawned, Virginia had emerged from the post-Civil War Reconstruction era with Democratic-dominated, pro-segregation political machines that lasted for three generations.

Although seldom publicly shown to be as rabid and ugly as in some Deep South states, Virginia’s segregation policies were in many ways more unyieldingly iron-clad, and stayed that way for decades. “By comparison [to Virginia], Mississippi is a hotbed of democracy,” political scientist V.O. Key once famously wrote.

In 1904, not long after Virginia’s segregationist constitution came into effect (it would remain so until 1971), the General Assembly passed legislation requiring separation of the races in public accommodation, including trains. Many of those laws remained in effect until the 1960s, when they were superseded by federal law.

“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,” said Cate Magennis Wyatt, who chairs the NOVA Parks board.
Yet long before Rosa Parks in Alabama set off a national debate on the issue in the 1950s, the W&OD saw cases of resistance to the status quo.

“Some people refused to follow the laws, and some quietly ignored them,” said Elizabeth Ransom, who studied the issue for NOVA Parks.

In 1906, a woman named Barbara Pope – dubbed later by The Washington Post as “The Rosa Parks of D.C.” – refused to sit in segregated seating, “laying the groundwork for later civil-rights legislation,” Ransom said.

But on the whole, segregation was a fact of life throughout Virginia well into the 1950s, accepted, to varying degrees, by those on both sides of the racial divide.

The last W&OD passenger cars ran in 1951, as the line carried only freight for its remaining two decades of operation. But even with passenger service gone, old habits died hard: Stations remained segregated for those picking up freight and using restrooms.

And, perhaps because it was easier to ignore the past than face it, some of Virginia’s long-unenforceable Jim Crow regulations remained on the statute books until being rescinded in 2020, following recommendations from the Commission to Examine Racial Inequality in Virginia Law.

The Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority itself came into being at the very tail end of the segregation era (founded in 1959) and today manages more than 12,000 acres of parks and recreational facilities in Arlington, Fairfax and Loudoun counties and the cities of Alexandria, Fairfax and Falls Church.

• • •

The interpretive sign at Bluemont Park can be accessed by parking in the lot (601 North Manchester St.) and walking past the bridge over Four Mile Run and then the W&OD Trail itself to the caboose. It is about a one-minute walk from the parking lot.

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