Museum News

First Iconic Artifacts Installed in the National Museum of African American History and Culture

Jim Crow Railway Car and Angola Prison Guard Tower Will Tell Powerful Stories in Inaugural Exhibition on Segregation

November 17, 2013

Construction on the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture
reached a significant milestone today with the arrival and installation of two of the largest signature
artifacts acquired by the museum. A restored segregation-era railway car, circa 1918, and an early 20th
century guard tower from the Angola prison in Louisiana promise to be two of the most captivating
objects in the new museum when it opens in late 2015. They will be on display in the Segregation
Gallery as part of an inaugural exhibition “Defending Freedom, Defining Freedom: Era of Segregation
1876 – 1968.”

The 77-ton, vintage rail car and concrete guard tower are too large to install once the museum
building is completed. As a result, the two objects had to be lifted off a convoy of semi-trailers on
Constitution Avenue between 14th and 15th streets by two 500-ton cranes and lowered 60 feet into the
bottom levels of the museum in the very early stage of construction. The remainder of the museum
will be built around these two artifacts.

“It is both a humbling and an inspiring experience to witness these extraordinary and iconic
artifacts placed in their permanent home in the museum,” said Lonnie Bunch, founding director of the
museum. “The Jim Crow-era rail car and the Angola prison guard tower are two striking reminders of
America’s segregated age and tell powerful freedom stories that our museum needs to share with the
public. Together they present a unique opportunity to instill a profound appreciation of the everyday
experiences, the inequality, and the harsh realities that segregation and incarceration practices
presented to African Americans – realities that shaped our collective national history.”

Today’s installation represents one of the most complex artifact-delivery operations inSmithsonian history, requiring special staging in multiple locations and months of planning. Before arriving from an off-Mall Smithsonian facility early this morning as part of a seven-truck convoy, the 80-foot-long rail car and cast-concrete tower underwent extensive restoration in Stearns, Ky. The railway car was then shrink-wrapped for protection and loaded for highway transportation onto semitrailers for the three-day journey to Washington, D.C. Constitution Avenue between 14th and 15th
streets was closed to vehicular and pedestrian traffic during the five-hour installation operation.

Segregation-era Southern Railway Car No. 1200
The museum acquired the 44-seat Southern Railway car (No. 1200) in 2009 as a donation from
a longtime friend of the Smithsonian, Pete Claussen, chairman and CEO of Gulf & Ohio Railways,
and a member of the Smithsonian National Board. Built by Pullman Palace Car Company, the
passenger coach was refurbished in 1940 and 1950 to create separate seating for white and “colored”
passengers; it was used as a segregated passenger car from 1940-1960, serving routes in Kentucky,
Tennessee, Georgia and Florida. Before it was donated to the museum, the rail car was stored at the
Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum in Chattanooga, Tenn.

“This rail car belongs in the National Museum of African American History and Culture
because it is a tangible remnant from America’s long years of segregation — and those remnants are
rare,” said Claussen. “The separate water fountains are gone; the black and white sections of movie
theaters are gone. There are very few objects that allow people to see what segregation was like, and
this is one of them.”

Since 2012, the rail car has been undergoing extensive restoration by Wasatch Railroad
Contractors at a warehouse maintenance shop in Stearns used by Big South Fork Scenic Railway. The
18-month restoration returned the rail car to its authentic 1940s design with a sylvan green, newly
painted exterior. Funding for the restoration came from Norfolk Southern Railway, BNSF Railway
and from the Save America’s Treasures program of the National Park Service.
“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 rail car will help the museum tell an all-important, all-American story of the physical
manifestation of the Jim Crow-era segregation laws and how railroads interpreted them. Starting in
1900, railroads began segregating cars to accommodate state laws. South-bound passenger cars had to
be outfitted so there was a divider between the front, for white passengers, and the back for “colored”
passengers. Visitors to the museum will be able to walk through and around the rail car. Interpretive
kiosks, sounds within the car and guided tours will let visitors understand the experiences of
segregated train travel from the early 1900s until the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Angola Prison Tower
The museum acquired the prison guard tower from the Louisiana State Penitentiary in 2012 as
a donation to explore post-Civil War incarceration practices and to tell the story of Angola prison as a
19th-century plantation site. Angola is one of the largest maximum-security prisons in the country
The plantation land was bought by Samuel James, a major in the Confederate Army, who in
1869 was awarded the lease to run the state’s penitentiary. It housed inmates in old slave quarters,
which later became known as Camp A. The prison officially opened in 1901 and drew some of its
labor directly from the state’s prisons in a common post-Civil War penal labor practice known as
convict-leasing that allowed private individuals to lease prisoners.

The guard tower was erected between the 1930s and 1940s and used to guard inmates in Camp
H. Measuring almost 21 feet tall by 14 feet deep and made of cast concrete with steel reinforcement
inside, the tower represents surveillance and discipline methods during the Jim Crow and segregation
eras, when the prison population was predominantly African American. In July 2013, the guard tower
was dismantled from Camp H at the Louisiana State Penitentiary and transported to the restoration
facility in Stearns. It was loaded into the museum’s lower level in two pieces and will join the rail car
in the forthcoming inaugural exhibition on segregation.

The museum also acquired a 6-by-9-foot cell from another section of the prison that was also
built on former slave quarters. It will be installed later in a different section of the museum.
The National Museum of African American History and Culture was established as a
Smithsonian museum by an Act of Congress in 2003. It is the only national museum devoted
exclusively to the documentation of African American life, art, history and culture. Groundbreaking
for the $500 million museum took place Feb. 22 in a ceremony with President Barack Obama; former
First Lady Laura Bush, a member of the museum’s advisory council; and Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.),
who co-sponsored the legislation that created the museum. It is now under construction on
Washington’s National Mall, on a five-acre site adjacent to the Washington Monument. It is scheduled
to open in winter 2015. For more information, visit

Media Contact(s): 

Fleur Paysour (202) 633-4761; 
Lindsey Koren (202) 633-4052; 

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The National Museum of African American History and Culture will be a place where all Americans can learn about the richness and diversity of the African American experience, what it means to their lives and how it helped us shape this nation. A place that transcends the boundaries of race and culture that divide us, and becomes a lens into a story that unites us all.