Punta Gorda Train Depot latest topic in debate over country’s racial history

Reporter: Erika Jackson Writer: Jackie Winchester
Published: Updated:
Credit: WINK News

The Punta Gorda Train Depot, a big piece of Southwest Florida and African American history, has recently been a topic of debate over its ties to segregation.

Today, there is only one entrance to the historic depot, but during times of segregation, black people had a separate entrance from white people, and those two doors are still visible and marked.

“We are a train town, and this being a train depot, this really symbolizes our birth out of Central Florida,” said Jaha Cummings, vice president of the Punta Gorda Historical Society.

Bernice Russell (Photo courtesy of the Punta Gorda Historical Society)

The 92-year-old building is home to an antique shop and museum, but in 1928, it housed railroad passengers, with separate ticket windows, bathrooms and doors for blacks and whites.

Cummings, a fifth-generation Punta Gorda resident, said his grandmother, Bernice Russell, argued to keep the doors and signs when the building was donated to the historical society.

“That was kind of like a condition. If we’re going to do this then it needs to actually be the train depot and it is important to our community to keep it this way.”

Not everyone agrees.

A Punta Gorda woman tweeted her disapproval of the separate doors over the weekend, eliciting a response from someone threatening to destroy the building.

The Punta Gorda Police Department said the threat doesn’t appear credible. “We have been investigating this post and it appears to have been posted by someone on the west coast of the United States and not someone local. At this time there does not appear to be a credible threat, however, we will be increasing patrols in the area of the train depot and will continue to look into this matter.”

The original poster, though, is concerned for her safety after sharing her opinion.

“If everyone wants to keep history within the town, I think it should be in an exhibit and not out in the open,” the anonymous woman told WINK News.

Cummings feels the addition is important for education and Punta Gorda’s future.

“We don’t want to forget this so we don’t have these things happen again,” he said.

The building is close to getting some repairs. The National Parks Service granted $350,000 to repair damage caused by Hurricane Irma in 2017.

The Punta Gorda Historical Society said the train depot is the only survivor of six depots the Atlantic Coast Line built with the Neo-Spanish architectural style. The building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1990.

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