The path is for everyone, but the railroad was racist


On Saturday, February 26, NOVA Parks unveiled two new information panels along its Washington & Old Dominion (W&OD) Trail. The outside panels recognize Virginia’s Jim Crow laws (1900), which required all train companies to separate white and black passengers.

Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay speaks while behind him (from left) stands Fairfax County Commonwealth Attorney Steve Descano; Sheila Olem, Mayor of the City of Herndon; Karen Campblin, President of the Fairfax County NAACP; and Cate Magennis Wyatt, CEO of NOVA Parks.

Southern Railway then owned what is now the W&OD Trail known as the Bluemont Branch. It is the 45-mile paved route from Arlington that runs through the urban heart of Fairfax County and ends in the rural town of Purcellville Train Station in Loudoun County. The first ceremony was held at 10 a.m. in Fairfax County at the Red Caboose in the town of Herndon, while the second ceremony was later in the day in Loudoun County at the intersection of South King Street in Leesburg.

The sign was unveiled in Arlington a week earlier.

Cate Magennis Wyatt, Loudoun County Representative and CEO of NOVA Parks, described how in 1959 visionaries from multiple jurisdictions came together to create and operate a system of regional parks that now, 63 years later, spans 12,000 acres. According to Wyatt, parks are not just about areas to be redesigned. They are also concerned with creating ecologically and historically significant places, “even if that means holding up a mirror to the worst chapters of our common American history.”

“We are here today to recognize that this 45-mile linear park, the WO&D, is there for us to enjoy, but to recognize those who rode it. They have suffered injustices for no social or legal reason,” she said.

It was not until 1964, when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, that this segregation, enshrined in Jim Crow legislation, was officially abolished. The laws were named after a white minstrel who appeared as “Jim Crow” with a black face, a derogatory portrayal of a black character.

“In the 1900s, the Virginia legislature passed a law mandating racial segregation in public places,” read the opening lines of the panels. “This included schools, restaurants, hotels and public transport – which at the time mostly involved the use of trains. This was dubbed the ‘Jim Crow’ law and aimed to perpetuate discrimination against people of color.”

Karen Campblin, President of the Fairfax County NAACP, speaks at the unveiling.

According to the National Park Service, Virginia’s Jim Crow law states that “the conductors or managers on all such railroads have the authority, and are hereby bound, to allocate to each white or colored passenger his or her respective car, bus, or compartment . If the passenger does not declare his race, the conductor and managers, acting in good faith, are the sole judges of his race.”

Wyatt said those in attendance at the interpretation panel’s unveiling were surrounded by leaders who chose to use their time and talent to “always step into the light of injustice and speak truth to those in power.” She introduced Karen Campblin, President of the Fairfax County NAACP, as a person “who did this.”

During the Jim Crow era, rail travel provided food, medical treatment, and economic opportunities at work, according to Campblin. But “not so much” for black people, she said. African Americans were mistreated and forced to sit in waiting rooms in unbearable conditions. They were forced to hop on and off without humanity, forced to jump off trains instead of getting off.

“Also, their compartments were sometimes used for extra luggage from their white colleagues or to transport cattle, pigs and other things while paying the same fare for the trip,” Campblin said. “As a community we overcame, we persevered and we contributed to a community despite the way we were treated.”

Jeffrey McKay, Chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Directors. congratulated Paul Gilbert, Managing Director of NOVA Parks, and others who made sure that NOVA Parks was not just for leisure and history was not erased. “They tell tales of the most divisive time in American history, and not telling that tale is divisive in and of itself … Ensuring the stories are told is the county’s moral compass,” McKay said.

McKay presented Karen Campbin with a Board of Directors Proclamation designating February 2022 as African American History Month. “And in my world … every month of the year is African American history month,” he said.

Fairfax County Commonwealth Attorney Steve Descano described “a history of injustice.”

“Everyone who has my back works every day to advance their part of the world, their community, and also eradicate those messages of past injustice, whether it’s in housing, business development, or in my case, the criminal justice system. he said. “We are wise to recognize that true momentum toward progress can only be achieved by always remembering the mistakes of our past.”


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