KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The National Museum of African American History and Culture opened in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 24, and one of its key exhibits is a Jim Crow-era segregated railroad car donated by Knoxville businessman Pete Claussen.
It is the largest object displayed in the museum, and is a rare physical reminder of an ugly time in American history, said Claussen, chairman of Knoxville-based Gulf & Ohio Railways.
“There are very few physical reminders of segregation now,” he said. “There is not that much stuff, but this was a piece of tangible evidence of segregation and how it worked.”
The 70-foot-long car looks a lot like a standard railroad passenger car except inside it is split into two, 22-seat sections. The size of the seats and the legroom is the same, but the white section of the car takes up about two-thirds of the car’s length.
The white section has men’s and women’s restrooms with lounge areas that include sofas. The men’s room also has a smoking area and spittoons. The black section has approximately 2-feet-by-3-feet restrooms — just toilets and sinks. Also, the section for white passengers has substantial luggage racks but the section for black passengers has none.
“Both sets of passengers pay the same fare, but the black passengers wind up having to slide their luggage under their seats so that they are more cramped and they don’t have a lounge to go to,” Claussen said.
Many items from that era, such as a bus or a water fountain, would have shown no evidence they were used to segregate people, Claussen said. They might have displayed printed signs at the time saying who may use them, but the signs are long gone. The very design of the rail car is a lesson in segregation, he said.
“If you study it, you realize that it didn’t have to be done that way, and you don’t know if it was done to make the black passengers feel inferior or to make the white passengers feel superior,” Claussen said.
The car, called SR 1200 for Southern Railway car 1200, was built in 1918 as an open-window coach and used on routes in Kentucky, Georgia and Florida. In 1940, it was converted to have the separate black and white sections.
Claussen, who has had a fascination with railroads since he was a child, developed an interest in collecting and restoring vintage locomotives and rolling stock. He also has an interest in history and has been active on the Smithsonian National Board for years. He knew that Lonnie Bunch III, now founder of the new museum, was working on the project and looking for exhibits.
Claussen had traded a locomotive for the segregated passenger car, which at the time was in the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum in Chattanooga.
“So, Lonnie and his folks made some trips to Chattanooga and decided they really wanted the car, so I donated it to them,” Claussen said.
The restoration of the car took about two years and was made possible by a Save America’s Treasures grant in 2010, matched by funds from Norfolk Southern and BNSF railways. Wasatch Railroad Contractors, which did the restoration, tried not to return it to like-new condition, but leave some of the wear and tear of a car seeing daily service.
Claussen attended a ribbon-cutting for the museum Saturday, at which President Barack Obama and former President George W. Bush spoke. During his first administration, Bush authorized the legislation establishing the museum. Claussen said he is pleased to have played a part in getting the museum one of its main exhibits.
“It represents an object that can cause you to see what segregation was about,” he said.
Information from: Knoxville News Sentinel, http://www.knoxnews.com