Union Station was one of the few places in the downtown area of the city where blacks could eat from its opening in 1907 until 1953, when the "Lost Laws" were restored to Washington in the landmark District of Columbia v. John R. Thompson Co., Inc. During the first half of the 20th century, it was a popular place for young children to play in a neighborhood lacking playgrounds that African Americans could use. With no swimming pools available, on hot summer days children of all backgrounds were especially drawn to the fountain memorializing Christopher Columbus on the station's plaza. In addition, thousands of African American residents, migrants, and visitors have passed through the station's doors en route to a new life in Washington, DC.

Union Station was completed in 1908 to a grand Beaux-Arts design by Daniel Burnham. Its name signified its role in unifying the depots of a number of separate railroad companies, whose stations previously were located at points on the National Mall. Until air travel became the most popular form of transportation after World War II, the station was the most important entry point to the city. As the number of train passengers declined, so did the station's use. In 1976 the National Visitor Center opened in part of the old station, but it failed to attract visitors and seriously defaced the station's classical design. In 1984 the Department of Transportation began restoration work and remodeling that created a combination shopping mall and train station. The new development opened in 1988.

A bust of A. Philip Randolph, founder of the International Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, is found in the passenger waiting area.

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