Save America’s Treasures Restores Another Icon of the African-American ExperienceSave America’s Treasures Restores Another Icon of the African-American Experience

A 77-ton, vintage Pullman rail car was recently lifted by two massive cranes into the construction pit of the Smithsonian Museum of African-American History and Culture. The shrink wrapped Jim-Crow era railway car’s placement in the museum, which will be built around it, culminated almost two years of restoration made possible in part by a Save America’s Treasures (SAT) grant in 2010, which was matched by funds from Norfolk Southern Railway and BNSF Railway.

Save America’s Treasures Restores Another Icon of the African-American ExperienceThis 44-seat Southern Railway car was donated to the Smithsonian by Pete Claussen, chairman and CEO of Gulf & Ohio Railways. Save America's Treasures (SAT) helped restore this relic of Jim Crow segregation, and like another SAT project, Rosa Park's bus, it will give visitors a first-hand experience of segregation.
Like another iconic SAT project, Rosa Parks bus, this car is both a symbol and a physical embodiment of segregation endured by Africa-Americans. Railroads began outfitting their cars with a divider between the front, for white passengers, and the back for “colored” passengers to comply with state laws in the South form around 1900 to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The size and substance of this artifact will give visitors, particularly the generations that never experienced the Jim-Crow laws, a first –hand experience of a space designed to impress upon its citizens their second-class status in society.

The SAT grant of $222,000 helped return the rail car to its authentic 1940s design. Typically SAT projects engage a broad range of individuals and businesses in each restoration project and this 18-month effort was no different according a Smithsonian news release, which included this quote: “We had over 20 people work on this project…electricians, woodworkers, metal workers, general carpenters, restorationists and painters,” said John E. Rimmasch, head of the restoration project and CEO of Wasatch Railroad Contractors. “Once all the structural elements were done, we went to the cosmetic items, fixing hat racks, putting lights together, then started the paint process and that’s where the car gets its personality.”

The Jim Crow railroad car was one of four such Smithsonian treasures, which won 2010 awards to help restore priceless collections and artifacts. These included the Asch collection, a well-spring of American folk music by the likes of Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly and other less-know musicians, poets and writers; the 6000-7000 field notebooks and expedition journals that chronicle field and survey exploration of the US; and the Heye Foundaiton Collection, which is the pre-eminent source documentation of indigenous history, lifeways and traditions at the National Museum of the American Indian. Save America’s Treasures was lasted funded in 2010, but its function, purpose and guidelines remain permanently authorized by Congress

A feature article in the Washington Post recently profiled the installation of this rail car in the museum.