by George Bartley
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA
In the 1950s, 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. He 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 he had just bought the train, which he planned to install in Gypsy Hill Park – the larger city park in Staunton, Virginia, where we lived. He told her that the Kinston owner wanted to sell the train, and only wanted $20,000. He added that he had seem similar models for sale for five times as much.
My mother was naturally horrified. Twenty thousand dollars was more than our house cost!
My father 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!
My mother said, “Well, this is against my better judgment. I will support your decision, but I don’t agree with it at all.” After the train after was installed in Staunton, she drove it until her death — this 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.
When the train first arrived in Staunton, a crew of railroad workers installed the quarter mile of track in the city park. Children who rode the train brought their own children years later, 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 during the 1950s, there was a separate city park for African Americans in Staunton, Virginia, and it definitely was not equal. 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. Since there was only one policeman in Gypsy Hill Park, the City Council did not want him to spend all his time chasing African Americans from the park.
My father was in an ethical quandary. He needed to keep it in Gypsy Hill Park, but he wanted to do the right thing. He agreed with the very conservative City Council so he’d be allowed to keep the train in the city park and make the money he needed to keep the train running. True to his word, he never sold a ticket to an African American child; he let them ride free! By following 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 carefully and thoughtfully at the choices given you, it is so much easier to do the right thing.