Maxine Kumin’s “Historic Blacksburg, Virginia”

Blacksburg, Virginia. The green-roofed building is Virginia Tech’s Lane Hall. PHOTO CREDIT: EAG. This photo is licensed under the the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 license.

“The lavatory sign still reads
Colored on one side and White
on the other in the old
caboose…”1

Maxine Kumin’s short poem “Historic Blacksburg, Virginia” succinctly captures the legacy of racial segregation laws that existed across the southern United States between the 1870s and the 1960s. The speaker, while visiting a retired caboose, notices a reversible lavatory sign indicating Colored on one side and White on the other. As she explains, the user would simply flip the sign to the appropriate side and then use, as she describes in the final line, the single lavatory’s “same foul hole.” With incredible economy, Kumin uses the sign to show the absurdity of the South’s institutional segregation while using her closing diction to capture its disgusting nature.

The map above centers on Blacksburg’s Municipal Park. Zooming in on the park reveals a red caboose, which may have inspired Kumin’s poem.

Other than the title, the poem makes no specific reference to Blacksburg, Virgnia, and while the city has a long history extending back at least as far as its establishment in 1798, there is no record of it being special among Southern municipalities in its application of Jim Crow laws. Maxine Kumin likely saw the sign, possibly while exploring the retired caboose in Municpal Park near Patrick Henry Drive and Giles Road. The addition of the word “Historic” to the town’s name in the poem’s title seems to refer more to the history of segregation in the South than to the bucolic college town nestled between the Blue Ridge and Allegheny Mountains. Blacksburg has been home to Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, or Virginia Tech, since the school’s founding as the Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College in 1872.

Read more about Maxine Kumin on the Poetry Foundation’s website and more about Blacksburg, Virginia on Wikipedia. Find Jack and Other New Poems at a local library, an independent bookstore, or on Amazon.

1Kumin, Maxine. “Historic Blacksburg, Virginia.” Jack and Other New Poems. New York: Norton, 2005. 73. Print.

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