Transportation Tuesday: Jim Crow Era Rail Car at the National Museum of African American History and Culture

Recently, the National Museum of African American History installed two of its first objects, though walls are scant and the roof does not yet exist.

A rendering of the rail car within the new National Museum of African American History and Culture. Smithsonian.com.

A 77-ton rail car built in 1918 and used by the Southern Railway was installed by crane into the museum’s construction site in November (read more here at Smithsonian.com). It is an important object, a space where the hatred behind Jim Crow laws and the inequalities of segregation are physically preserved. Separate compartments were established for white and black passengers, creating a physical rent that ignored hundred of years of a painful history, one that required many more years of reckoning that continues today.

1401 Enters the new American Museum of American History and Technology, November 30, 1961. Photo: Smithsonian Institution.

As a museum professional, I also can’t help but consider the installation of this object and the subsequent construction of the museum around it. If there’s one more thing Smithsonian staff should be doing now, it’s a plan for getting the rail car out forty years from now. While the resonance within this object of a terrible history warrants its permanent installation in the museum, responsible museum professionals realize there is no such thing as a permanent installation. New themes will need to be explored, and these explorations require gallery space. The National Museum of American History gave themselves an escape hatch by placing the ground floor transportation gallery next to a window, through which Southern Railway’s 1401 Locomotive entered the building in 1961.