Aug 16, 2022 - News

USPS closes Virginia post office over exhibit on segregation

A photo of the entrance to the Montpelier depot, with two segregated entrances to the historic passenger waiting area.
The Montpelier Depot. Photo: Ron Cogswell/Flickr

The U.S. Postal Service abruptly closed a rural Virginia post office in a historic train depot over objections to an exhibition highlighting the building’s segregated past.

What’s happening: The Montpelier Depot outside of Orange, Virginia, has housed a post office for 110 years.

  • The other half of the building once served as a waiting area for passengers and, more recently, was transformed into an exhibit on Jim Crow-era segregation, which included the reinstallation of signs over the once-segregated entrances — one labeled “White,” the other labeled “Colored.”

What they’re saying: USPS spokesperson Philip Bogenberger said in a statement to Axios that the 12-year-old exhibit only recently came to the attention of the postal service’s senior management.

  • He said USPS worries customers may conflate the segregated entrances to the exhibit with the post office’s operations on the other side of the small building, and “thereby draw negative associations between those operations and the painful legacy of discrimination and segregation that marked prior historical eras.”

The other side: The Montpelier Foundation, which oversees the estate of James Madison and also owns the nearby depot, says it was blindsided by the post office’s sudden closure in June.

  • Interim-CEO Elizabeth Chew tells Axios that Montpelier first heard about it from customers, and the only explanation the group has received to date came via a statement USPS provided to the Culpeper Star-Exponent, which first reported the closure earlier this week.

Why it matters: The dispute presents yet another example of difficult conversations that continue to surround racial reconciliation and remembrance.

  • It’s an issue the Montpelier Foundation has struggled with in a very public way after initially failing to make good on a promise to offer descendants of people formerly enslaved at the estate equal representation on its board.

What’s next: Bogenberger says USPS is trying to find “suitable alternative quarters in the community” for the office, which he says had one employee and operated for four hours a day.

Meanwhile, the Montpelier Foundation has no plans to alter the exhibit’s entrance signs, which Chew says are clearly contextualized with signage throughout.

  • “It’s such a basic point of the exhibition, to show how the Jim Crow segregation works,” she says. “The doors are clearly labeled, white and colored, and the facilities are so clearly not equal. That’s the whole point of the exhibition.”
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