The Ethical Loophole

by George Bartley
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA.

When I was six and my sister was three, my parents took us to Kinston, North Carolina to see my aunt.  While there we visited the Kinston city park, and their miniature amusement train.  My father was fascinated by the setup – he was a railroad engineer, knew a great deal about amusement trains, and examined the train for hours – and began a conversation with the owner that went on all afternoon – the kind of conversation that only two diehard railroad enthusiasts could have.  After a while, he came to my mother and told her that he had just bought a train that he planned to install in Gypsy Hill Park – the larger city park in Staunton, Virginia – the town where we lived.  He told her that the Kinston owner wanted to sell the train, and only wanted $20,000 – and my father added that he had seem similar models for 5 times as much.

My mother was naturally horrified – $20,000 – that is more than our house cost – this was the 1950s.

My father then asked my sister and I if he should buy it- of course we were jumping up and down – we thought this was the coolest thing ever!

ethicalloophole My mother said, “Well, this is against my better judgment – I will support your decision, but I don’t agree with it at all.”  She later began driving the train after it was installed in Staunton, and drove it until her death. This was at a time when driving a train was something that southern ladies just did not do.  Over the years, she became known in Staunton as the train lady, and was beloved by thousands of children.

Now when the train first arrived in Staunton, a crew of railroad workers installed the quarter mile track in the city park.  Children would ride the train – and years later bring their own children – who would later bring their own children. When my father passed away, the flags in the city were flown at half mast.

Shortly before he died, I was talking with my father about the train, and he told me that there was a separate city park for Afro Americans in Staunton, Virginia during the 1950s, it definitely was not equal. But one of the stipulations that the city council (who administered the parks) had before the train could be operated was that the train would not sell tickets to (using the terminology of the day) Negroes.  And since there was only one policeman in Gypsy Hill Park, city council did not want him to spend all his time chasing Afro Americans from the park.

Gypsy Express 2My father was in an ethical quandary – how was he going to pay for the train (he needed to keep it in Gypsy Hill Park) but he wanted to do the right thing.  So my father went ahead and agreed with the very conservative city council – this was the South during the days of segregation.  He was therefore allowed to keep the train in the city park.  You see, he never sold tickets to children who were Afro Americans – he let them ride free!  In a very real sense, because my father followed the rules of city council, he was able to integrate the park.

Over the years my father’s actions have taught me that if you look very carefully and thoughtfully at the choices given you, it is so much easier to do the right thing.

Originally published as HeroicStories #862


  • Reader and author: George Bartley
Sound Effects:
  • “Railroader,” Charles L. Todd and Robert Sonkin migrant workers collection (AFC 1985/001), American Folklife Center, Library of Congress


  • Staunton Parks & Recreation


19 thoughts on “The Ethical Loophole”

  1. Too bad people who did the right thing in the Jim Crow south get so little publicity. Mr. Bartley, you had a good father. Great story.

    • George, I went to school with you and your sister at Riverheads. My wife and I are volunteers with the Gypsy Express. Thank-you and your family for bring the train to Staunton. It brings joy to many, many children of all ages.

      Wade Haislip

  2. As is oft said, “Deeds and acts speak louder than ideas and words!” If only all persons could be such as your father, so generous and principled, what a wonderful world it could be.

    • I have a couple of additional comments along this line. This was the simplest and the least offensive. The others will not appear here.

      Was it discrimination? Absolutely. Was it wrong? In my opinion, absolutely not. It happened at a time where this kind of discrimination was how one man could make a difference, and how one man could be a quiet, yet effective, force for change. It took courage.

    • Yes–between right and wrong. But discrimination does not necessarily imply that one choice is superior to the other. It can simply be that one choice is more sensible than the other–which was eventually borne out.

    • I think the two different discriminations cancelled each other out. Good for this great man for doing what he did.

      Loving hearts are all the same bright color.

  3. Wow, that is awesome, what an inspiration your father is. Walt Disney loved trains, too, but he didn’t love children like this man did. We need more like him today!

  4. I absolutely LOVE this. The people on the city council were probably furious — but he was EXACTLY following the rules!! What a great guy.

    • Yes, the City Council never expected anyone to NOT CHARGE for anyone’s ticket, so they didn’t say that the black children could not ride.

  5. I salute your father as an inspiration to us all, however your mother is to be give credit as well. I have the feeling that had your mother put her foot down as too much of an expense, your father would not have persevered..

  6. Brilliant and creative. I love it! And a real hero to keep to his principles regardless of the “bottom line”.

  7. I respect and honor those who are able to be a beacon of change within the bounds of their culture. People are people; children are children. Imagine the memories those “forbidden” kids have to share with their children


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