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Louisiana City Is Turning an Old Train Depot Into a Civil Rights Museum

The project, funded by a local CDFI bank, represents the impact small Southern cities had on the movement. 

By Brittany Mosely

When it comes to the Civil Rights Movement, many of the pivotal moments took place in large cities: the Nashville sit-ins, the Montgomery bus boycott, the March on Washington. But in Natchitoches, Louisiana, the National Park Service is working with city officials to highlight the large impact small Southern cities had on the movement.

The City of Natchitoches, along with Cane River National Heritage Area and Cane River Creole National Historical Park — both part of the National Park Service — are leading the Texas and Pacific Railway Depot Rehabilitation Project. The depot was constructed in Natchitoches in 1927 in the midst of the Jim Crow era. That’s reflected in the Italianate Renaissance building, which has separate entrances, waiting areas and ticket booths for white and Black patrons. The station closed its doors to passenger rail in 1969.

“It basically encapsulated this time period of segregation and separate and unequal facilities for people of color,” says Rebecca Blankenbaker, executive director of Cane River National Heritage Area. “For the African American community especially in Natchitoches, this depot symbolizes their struggle for civil rights.”

When the depot reopens its doors next spring, it will house the headquarters of the Cane River Creole National Historical Park and will serve as the park’s visitor center. The center will include museum exhibits highlighting the Black experience in Natchitoches Parish from the colonial period to the Civil Rights Movement. The national park spans 63 acres and includes two Creole plantations, Magnolia and Oakland, both located in Natchitoches Parish. (Cane River National Heritage Area encapsulates the park and several other historical sites.)

The rehabilitation process of the depot was decades in the making. After it ceased passenger rail operations, the depot, which is owned by the city of Natchitoches, remained open to freight traffic until 1982. In the ’80s, there was a push for historical preservation in Natchitoches, thanks in large part to the movie “Steel Magnolias,” which was filmed there. Blankenbaker says the movie “made many locals recognize that Natchitoches had a lot of historic character and a lot of qualities that needed to be preserved.”

People began to discuss turning the depot into an African American heritage museum, but it would take several more decades for it to come to fruition. Over the ensuing years, Blankenbaker says Cane River National Heritage Area spent about half a million dollars on preservation and stabilization efforts at the depot. In 2019, the City of Natchitoches signed a lease with the National Park Service granting Cane River Creole National Historical Park use of the building.

The project is funded through a $2 million loan from BOM Bank, a CDFI with branches throughout Louisiana and Texas. The bank has a long history in the region and a strong focus on community development. For Natchitoches mayor Ronnie Williams Jr., having a local institution funding the project is an important factor.

“They're helping to grow Natchitoches,” he says. “For me personally, to have that local bank a part of this deal, it means a lot. They know the story already. It's not just about making money; they really want to see the city do well.”

Throughout the rehabilitation process, community listening sessions were hosted. Locals shared stories about riding the train to Alexandria, Louisiana, to go to the movies and taking it to New Orleans to visit family. During the civil rights era, activists slipped coded messages to movement leaders in other cities via mail bags on the midnight train. During the Vietnam War, trains returned with the bodies of local men who died in combat.

“The outpouring from the African American community in Natchitoches who want to share their story, share the story of their ancestors with the public, the openness to loaning images, giving us their stories, their firsthand accounts, and even objects in some cases, has been tremendous,”  Blankenbaker says. “And that's, I think, part of the excitement, that their story is going to be told.”

For those who visit the depot, whether they’re from Natchitoches or out of town, Blankenbaker hopes they leave with a broader understanding of the city’s history and its effects on the nation.

“This story of the people of Natchitoches and the Cane River through the lens of the depot is one of struggle, but also success,” she says. “It's often the quiet, unassuming corners of our region where those seeds of change are planted and where they take root and where they flourish.”

This story is part of our series, CDFI Futures, which explores the community development finance industry through the lenses of equity, public policy and inclusive community development. The series is developed in partnership with Next City.