The museum worked tirelessly to restore the railway car to reflect the late 1940s and early 1950s during the Jim Crow era of segregation.
The restored Pullman Palace passenger car, which ran along the Southern Railway route during the first half of the 20th century, serves as a central artifact in the museum’s vast inaugural exhibition “Defending Freedom, Defining Freedom: Era of Segregation 1876-1968.”
Walking through Southern Railway Car No. 1200, visitors will see there are no luggage racks in the “colored” section, requiring travelers to cram their suitcases around their feet, and that the “colored” bathroom is smaller and lacks the amenities of the “whites” bathroom.
“There are all these subtle and not-so-subtle reminders that ‘you are not as good as the people in the other section,’” says Spencer Crew, curator of the exhibition. “So often this era can seem abstract and far away for people, but this gives them a chance to travel back in time and see and experience it.”
Crew adds that the car speaks particularly to the challenges that African-Americans faced as they tried to move around the country.
Train travel was the primary way people covered long distances in the United States until at least the 1950s. Since the segregation laws were almost entirely implemented in the South, this created strange situations for travelers moving between the two parts of the country.
“If you were coming from New York, when you got to Washington, D.C. you would have to make that switch,” says Crew. “Or in the Midwest, if you were traveling through Cincinnati when you got to the border with Kentucky, you have to make that switch.”