On Saturday, February 26, NOVA Parks unveiled two new interpretive signs along its Washington & Old Dominion (W&OD) Trail. Exterior signs acknowledge Virginia’s Jim Crow Laws (1900) which required all railroads to separate white and black passengers.
Southern Railway at the time owned the bed of the railroad known as the Bluemont Branch, which is now the W&OD Trail. This is the 45-mile paved road from Arlington that runs through the urban heart of Fairfax County and ends in the country town at Purcellville Station in Loudoun County. The first ceremony took place at 10 a.m. in Fairfax County, at the Red Caboose in the town of Herndon, while the second ceremony took place later in the day in Loudoun County, on the trail crossing South King Street in Leesburg.
A week earlier, the sign was unveiled in Arlington.
Cate Magennis Wyatt, Loudoun County Representative and Chair of the NOVA Parks Board of Directors, described how, in 1959, visionaries from multiple jurisdictions came together to create and manage a system of regional parks that, 63 years later , covers 12,000 acres. According to Wyatt, parks are not just spaces to be recreated. They also aim to create places that are environmentally and historically significant, “even if that means holding up a mirror to the worst chapters of our shared American histories.”
“We are here today to recognize that this 45-mile-long linear park, the WO&D, is a pleasure for us but to recognize those who have walked it. They have suffered injustices without social or legal reason,” said she declared.
It wasn’t until 1964, when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, that segregation, which Jim Crow laws had entrenched, was officially abolished. Laws had been named after a white minstrel who made up blackface as “Jim Crow”, a derogatory portrayal of a black character.
“In the 1900s, the Virginia Legislature passed a law that required racial segregation in public spaces,” read the first lines of the signs. “This included schools, restaurants, hotels and public transport – which at the time mainly consisted of the use of trains. This was dubbed the ‘Jim Crow’ law and was intended to perpetuate discrimination against people of color.”
According to the National Park Service, the Jim Crow Law of Virginia stated that “the conductors or managers of all such railroads shall have power, and are hereby bound, to assign to every white or colored passenger his carriage, their respective coach or compartment. If the passenger fails to disclose their race, the driver and stewards, acting in good faith, will be the sole judges of their race.”
Wyatt said those in attendance for the interpretive panel unveiling were surrounded by leaders who chose to use their time and talents to “always step into the light of injustice and speak truth to power.” She introduced Fairfax County NAACP President Karen Campblin as someone “who did it.”
In Jim Crow times, rail transportation provided food, medical care and labor economic opportunities, according to Campblin. But “not so much” for black people, she said. African Americans were treated badly, forced to sit in waiting rooms in intolerable conditions. They were forced to board and disembark without humanity, forced to jump trains rather than get off.
“Also, their compartments were sometimes used for extra luggage for their white counterparts or for transporting cattle, pigs and other things, while they paid the same amount to travel,” Campblin said. “As a community we overcame, persevered and contributed to a community despite how we were treated,”
Jeffrey McKay, chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. congratulated Paul Gilbert, Executive Director of NOVA Parks, and others who have ensured that NOVA Parks is not just a place of recreation and history is not erased. “They tell the story of the most controversial period in American history, and not telling that story is, in itself, divisive…It’s the county’s moral compass to make sure the stories get told. “McKay said.
McKay presented Karen Campbin with a board of oversight proclamation declaring February 2022 African American History Month. “And in my world…every month of the year is African American History Month,” he said.
Fairfax County Attorney Steve Descano described “a history of injustice”.
“Everyone who stands behind me works every day to advance their part of the world, their community, and also to eradicate these messages of past injustice, whether in housing, business development or, in my case, the criminal justice system,” he said. “We are smart to recognize that true drive towards progress can only be achieved if we always keep in mind the failures of our past.”