Carolyn Roy | News Editor
“We’re looking to you for stories that desperately need to be told,” Jay Miller told a meeting of about 30 people who were at the Ben Johnson Auditorium Tuesday to talk about their memories of the Texas & Pacific Railway Depot. Miller is with Interpretative Consultants, the company that will create the exhibits for the depot after it is restored and open to the public. The purpose of the meeting was to gather stories that local people think should be showcased in the depot.
According to the information sheet given attendees, the City of Natchitoches, Cane River Creole National Historical Park (CRCNHP) and Cane River National Heritage Area (CRNHA) are partnering to restore the depot. It will house the administrative offices and visitor center for the CRCNHP that is part of the National Park Service. The displays and exhibits will feature perspectives of the African American community within Natchitoches Parish and along Cane River and their relation to the depot.
Miller said he was seeking stories about social injustice and how Blacks and whites interfaced to form relationships. “You have those stories,” he said. “What will visitors see? Everybody has a story but it’s your story.” He wants visitors to make an emotional connection to the stories, know what the train station meant, learn how things worked and why they matter. Miller said the main waiting room was in the center of the depot but the “colored” waiting room was on the north side of the depot.
He wants the exhibits to focus on how the depot was designed for segregation and the “separate but equal” concept. “Why was it that way and can we create a deeper understanding,” Miller said. “What is the story and what does it mean to you?” Local educator and historian Susan Dollar said that Jim Crow laws started in train stations with segregated facilities. “People had to get on the train to have a better life. The train was community thing that delivered the mail and interfaced to the rest of the world.” Ronald Helaire spoke about how the train station was a departure point for Black people leaving Natchitoches for California and a better life.
Some of them never saw their families again. Some went to California to prepare the way for their families to come later. He spoke of how his grandmother, who lived on Texas Street, walked to the depot. “She had a great trepidation about navigating (white) neighborhoods to get to the depot and back to home,” Helaire said. When someone said perhaps the “colored” signs should be part of the exhibits, Helaire said he felt the depot needed “in your face” artifacts and a “gut punch” that may be offensive, but were important to the interpretative process. Helaire said that Black people learned to bear the indignities of being Black to survive.
Miller asked if something should be said about slavery such as where slaves in Natchitoches come from.
Ralph Wilson said that story has to be told. “We’re at a point where we can talk about these things,” he said. David Dollar said it was a wonderful metaphor for the organizers to use the train depot to take the story from slavery to segregation to today. “It can take a whole new meaning.” Nicole Gray said she thought it would be interesting to tell the story of Chinese immigration from New Orleans to this area. She is a descendant of those early Chinese immigrants. Carolyn Breedlove spoke of how as a 10-year-old student, her class rode the train to the Kochinsky Community near Cypress to have the experience of riding a train. Sylvia Morrow said that the Black Heritage Committee had numerous oral histories that the organization would share with Miller for the exhibits.
There were numerous other stories told that Miller will consider when deciding on the final ones. He will be back to conduct several meetings in the next three months. He will then compile a list of stories that will be used as the ones told in the depot exhibits. Administrative offices will be housed in the former freight area of the depot while the two waiting rooms will serve as the visitor center with interpretive displays, exhibits, gift shop and a theater community room. Rehabilitation of the depot will probably begin in late summer or early fall, pending approval of funding.
Fabrication of the interpretative displays and exhibits will likely be ready in one to two years after completion of the building. Jay Miller is a consultant whose company will create the displays and exhibits in the T&P Railroad Depot when rehabilitated into a visitor center and administrative office for the Cane River National Historical Park.