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New historic marker at Bluemont Junction Park speaks to impact of Jim Crow laws

A new interpretive sign is being installed near Bluemont Junction Park to explain how Jim Crow laws impacted passengers riding the Washington & Old Dominion (W&OD) train line.

The sign is being installed by NOVA Parks and will be outside of the retired train caboose along what is now the W&OD trail. The historic marker is a few minutes walk from Bluemont Junction Park’s parking lot at 601 N. Manchester Street.

First in operation in 1859, the W&OD was one of the most popular train lines in the region. It began in Alexandria, cut through Arlington, and terminated in what is today Loudoun County. The railroad closed in 1968, but not before helping to establish a number of Northern Virginia suburbs.

Like other forms of public transportation at the time, the trains were required by Virginia state law to be segregated. A number of these discriminatory laws in the Commonwealth were technically still on the books until early 2020.

As the new sign details, Black passengers (as well as Native Americans) were often forced to sit in the back of the train and curtains were sometimes installed to further separate passengers of different races. Passengers who didn’t adhere to this law were fined and arrested, much like Barbara Pope, who was arrested in Falls Church in 1906 for not sitting in a certain section.

“Knowing our past is important to understanding the present. Injustice and inequity were built into the law and part of everyday life not that long ago,” said Julius D. Spain, NAACP Arlington Branch President, in a press release. “The Arlington Chapter of the NAACP is pleased to partner with NOVA Parks to tell the story of how segregation was part of the rail service that is now the most popular trail in Virginia.”

While a temporary sign was first placed last week, a permanent marker is being installed this week, a NOVA Parks spokesperson tells ARLnow.

A formal unveiling is happening at 10 a.m. this Saturday (Feb. 19). Spain, NOVA Parks leaders, as well as some Arlington County Board members are expected to be in attendance.

“Efforts that educate about the impact of segregationist Jim Crow laws in our community are essential: They remind us of our responsibility to ensure that our parks, transit and other services are inclusive and equitable for the present, and for generations to come,” said County Board Chair Katie Cristol. “I’m honored to join NOVA Parks in recognizing the history of the W&OD railroad and renewing the commitment to make the W&OD trail a welcoming space for everyone.”

Similar signs are being placed along the W&OD trail in Fairfax and Loudoun Counties. Each sign cost about $1,165 to make and install.

After operating as a railroad for nearly a century, the W&OD was converted into a park and trail starting in 1974. Completed in 1988, the trail stretches about 45 miles from Shirlington to Purcellville.

Today, the W&OD is a popular thoroughfare for walkers, joggers, and bikers so much so that separate paths were created for cyclists and pedestrians in Falls Church. There’s talk of that happening for the trail’s Arlington section as well.

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