Will the Tanning of America Force a Re-examination of the Expectation Some People Have About the Exclusivity of Certain Spaces?

The Napa Valley Wine Train Nov. 13, 2010, in Napa, Calif.  TIM MOSENFELDER/GETTY IMAGES FOR ALOFT HOTELS
The Napa Valley Wine Train Nov. 13, 2010, in Napa, Calif.

In the context of the past year’s tensions over police violence, the story of the Sistahs on the Reading Edge book club—11 women, 10 of them African American and one white, ranging in age from 39-85—whose members were ejected from the Napa Valley Wine Train for being “too loud,” may not evoke the same level of outrage.

Police were called, but there was no confrontation and no one was physically hurt. And after initially posting a false claim that the women had verbally and physically assaulted other guests and staff, the Napa Valley Wine Train issued an apology to the women, refunded their ticket costs and offered to provide them another trip on the house “in a reserved car where you can enjoy yourselves as loudly as you desire.” That’s a tad passive-aggressive, if you ask me, but it’s an apology nonetheless.

Why, then, would such an episode even rate in a world where the movement is literally fighting to protect black lives?

The answer is that it’s not as urgent—and thank God, the Sistahs weren’t physically assaulted. But I was struck by the way this moment eerily intersects with the history of black ejections from trains in the era of segregation. After all, the Napa Valley Wine Train is intended to give passengers a throwback to the past; it features refurbished vintage Pullman train cars, most dating to 1915. The interiors have elegant velvet seats and curtains and intricate paneling carved from exotic woods that made Pullman cars the standard of luxurious travel at the turn of the 20th century. Unfortunately, the ejection of these women reminds us of a history we shouldn’t try to re-enact.

Elegant railcars were some of the first sites of de facto public segregation in America.The use of the term Jim Crow segregation was first deployed to describe the separation of black and white passengers on railcars in Massachusetts in the 1840s.

Thomas “Daddy” Rice, a white performer who blackened his face to bring the character of Jim Crow to life on minstrel stages throughout the country, made Jim Crow enormously popular throughout the country, shaping the national consciousness on race.

On the minstrel stage, Rice’s Jim Crow was “the traveling intruder,” a grotesque portrayal of a loud, uncultured runaway slave who had a habit of encroaching on otherwise elegant train cars, streetcars and steamboats. So Jim Crow segregation was designed to keep free black passengers from violating the racialized social order of the day. The Jim Crow car became the place to put black passengers so that they would not intrude.

Attempts to segregate and sometimes eject dissenting black passengers were ubiquitous. Frederick Douglass fought back against white conductors who tried to remove him by force from a Massachusetts railcar in the 1850s, and in the 1880s, black women like Ida B. Wells sued after being ejected from first-class “ladies cars” simply on the basis of their race.

Nearly every black writer and thinker from the 20th century has a train story: James Weldon Johnson recalled being threatened by a lynch mob if he did not move to the inferior Jim Crow car; W.E.B. Du Bois recalled the rough, dirty and uncomfortable conditions in the segregated car placed right behind the train’s smoky and hot engine car.

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Source: The Root | BLAIR L.M. KELLEY

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