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Montpelier depot takes visitors to segregated past

February 22, 2010 12:36 am


Visitors are reflected in and seen through a window looking into the segregated waiting room labeled 'Colored' at the newly renovated Montpelier train depot at James Madison's Montpelier in Orange County yesterday. lo0222montpelier4.jpg

The depot is home to a new exhibit called 'In the Time of Segregation,' which opened yesterday. lo0222montpelier2.jpg

Journalist and author Juan Williams, yesterday's keynote speaker, said the depot is important to him 'because it speaks the truth.' lo0222montpelier1.jpg

Visitors to the renovated Montpelier train depot yesterday explore the segregated waiting rooms and the exhibit 'In the Time of Segregation.' The room on the left has a sign over the door saying 'Colored,' and the room on the right has one that says 'White.'


Yesterday, African-Americans walked through the entrance marked "white" at the Montpelier train depot.

They weren't surprised that the space inside was larger than the one marked "colored." They had always known that was the case.

Separate, but not equal.

Annette Freeman grew up in South Carolina and lived through those days.

"I remember going into a colored section like that," the 77-year-old said. "I was about 10.

"It takes you back," she said after exiting the exhibit that opened yesterday on the grounds of Montpelier.

The Montpelier estate in Orange County was home to James Madison, the nation's fourth president, and later the duPont family.

William duPont bought the property in 1901 and built the train depot nine years later, following specifications dictated by racial segregation laws in place in Virginia and the South from the 1890s through the 1960s.

The Montpelier Foundation hired a master craftsman in 2008 to faithfully restore the depot to re-create a chapter of American history many would prefer to forget.

The exhibit in the depot was dedicated yesterday to the memory of Russell Coffin Childs, a former Montpelier project director, who advocated the restoration of the depot to tell the story of segregation.

Ruth Long, a retired educator and member of the Orange County African-American Historical Society, quoted Virginia native Carter G. Woodson in making the case for remembering such painful chapters of the nation's past.

"Those who have no record of what their forebears have accomplished lose the inspiration which comes from the teaching of biography and history," he said.

"Montpelier ensures we won't forget our forbears," Long said.

The restored depot "tells the larger story of the struggles of Virginians, of African-Americans in this country at large," she said.

Montpelier officials noted that exactly 200 years after Madison--a slave holder--took office as president, the nation installed Barack Obama as its first black president.

Keynote speaker Juan Williams, a journalist and author who has written about the civil rights movement, noted the significant changes that have taken place in the nation since Madison, known as the "father of the Constitution," wrote the document meant to insure personal freedoms.

"I think how hard it would be for Madison to imagine not just President Obama, but Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, or her predecessor Condoleezza Rice, or her predecessor Colin Powell or his predecessor Madeleine Albright," Williams said.

"This is a different nation. This is a different moment," he added.

But he said it's important for the nation's "secrets" to be exposed.

"That's why this depot is so important to me, because it speaks the truth," he said.

The struggle for racial equality often centered around public places and public transportation, Williams said.

He mentioned the lunch counter sit-ins at a Woolworth's in Greensboro, N.C.

He remembered Rosa Parks' refusal to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Ala.

And he recalled Homer Plessy's insistence on sitting on a train with white people, the case that went to the Supreme Court and led to "separate but equal" becoming the law of the land.

After third grade, Annette Freeman moved with her family to New York, and she said she never felt the deep sting of racism.

But now, living with her daughter and her family in Culpeper, she thinks it's important that today's youths know of the nation's segregated past.

"Our children should not forget," she said. "If you put it in front of them, it helps them realize, there was a time like this."

Pamela Gould: 540/735-1972

Prospect Heights Middle student Hannah Vaughn led the crowd of more than 200 at the Montpelier Train Depot dedication in singing the civil rights anthem "We Shall Overcome."

The lyrics include:

We shall overcome.

We shall overcome.

We shall overcome some day.

Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe

We shall overcome some day.

Copyright 2014 The Free Lance-Star Publishing Company.