The History of Racial Exclusion in Southern Parks – THE DIRT

Landscapes of Exclusion: State Parks and Jim Crow in the American South / Library Of American Landscape History

By Glenn LaRue Smith, FASLA

William E. O’Brien’s book, Landscapes of Exclusion: State Parks and Jim Crow in the American South, was first published as a hardcover edition in 2015. It is ironic that one year later in 2016, the US Presidential election would usher in and racial shifts that divided Americans into ideological further cultural factions. This year, O’Brien’s book has been reissued as a paperback. It presents a mirror with which we can look back and see the profound changes in America, which is greatly needed in our divisive social media age of disinformation and historical erasure.

In a new forward, Ethan Carr, FASLA, professor of landscape architecture at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, reinforces O’Brien’s efforts to highlight “the impact of racial ideologies on park design throughout the twentieth century — and to this day.” O’Brien, who is trained as a geographer and is professor of environmental studies at Florida Atlantic University, acknowledges this impact by documenting the current efforts in many southern states to acknowledge the recreational segregation of the past. Early in his book, O’Brien’s refers to the efforts of the Texas Parks and Wildlife agency to add signage at Tyler State Park that recognizes “the Texas start state park system’s racial exclusion policy under Jim Crow.” Yet, he remains steadfast in his view that more must be done to acknowledge the segregation of the past in southern parks. He pronounces the example of the Tennessee park named for Nathan Bedford Forrest, the “first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan,” as an indicator of the work remaining to be done in redressing the remnants of Jim Crow.

This is a well-researched book that documents public space segregation within state parks and southern society, in particular during the 100-year period from the post-Civil War era through 1968. These Jim Crow laws (or Black Codes) were named after a minstrel character in “blackface,” which depicted newly freed slaves as less than human. The laws subjugated Black Americans and dictated their movements and access to recreation, education, and other benefits accessible to white Americans. The Jim Crow laws limited African American progress for decades, which specifically included access to recreation in the southern states.

O’Brien’s research spans the establishment of the first state park – Yosemite Park in California in 1864 — to a collection of southern state parks. His map indicating white and African American park sites from 1937-1962 is a striking visual record of the Jim Crow segregated culture that created an imbalance in park distribution and quality. He does not shy away from highlighting systemic racism based on the doctrine of “separate-but-equal” and the disparities created between white and African American park facilities.

Locations of state parks in the South highlighting facilities made available to African Americans between 1937 and 1962. Map by the author. / Courtesy of Library of American Landscape History

The book, which is divided into six chapters, begins with a chronicling of the state park systems in American and ends with views on the current cultural transformation of integrated state parks. The threads that connect all chapters are well-documented historical perspective on Jim Crow laws, the evasive tactics used by southern states to prolong segregated facilities, and the bureaucratic operations and racially negligent tactics of parks agencies. Other threads include the defiance of segregation by African Americans through legal efforts of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and insightful testimonials of ordinary citizens on both sides of the segregation divide.

He consistently reinforces how inadequate and unequal facilities for African Americans were, while highlighting specific parks in each southern state. Lake Murray State Park in Oklahoma is an example of unequal park facility that also included disparities in architectural quality. While the “Negro Recreation Area” designated as Camp No. 3 had cabins made of board and batten exteriors, the white-only Camp No. 1 had cabins made of wood timbers and stone fireplaces.

A cabin in white-only Camp No. 1 at Lake Murray State Park, constructed in 1938 as part of the Lake Murray RDA. / Photo by the author, 2012. Courtesy of Library of American Landscape History
A cabin in Camp No. 3 at Lake Murray State Park’s “Negro Recreation Area.” / Photo by the author, 2012. Courtesy of Library of American Landscape History

Oklahoma park service administrators understood whiteoma protests regarding proximity to “Negro” park areas and often succumbed to white resentments about physical contact with African Americans.

The park service supervisor, Milo Christenson, relayed white concerns, stating that “white groups will never use these facilities if they have ever been used by negro groups.” This was the understanding within the park service administration that was repeated in other southern states, helping to prolong the segregation of state parks even after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, passed under the administration of President Lyndon Johnson, ended segregation.

O’Brien also documents that African Americans were not allowed to use “Negro area” facilities after sundown, and African American recreation areas were mostly restricted to areas that had little or no access to water, historical, and other scenic features. Day-use only restrictions were only one of many methods used by parks officials to create physical separation of the races.

A 1929 survey of California state parks by Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. “expressed a desire to make state parks equitably accessible while maintaining standards of scenic quality.” However, this idealistic philosophy of state park development standards was out of reach for African Americans in southern states until the late 1960’s. With the development of separate parks, African Americans didn’t benefit from this Olmstedian idealization of scenic beauty.

Visitors at a scenic overlook in 1951 at the site of Breaks Interstate Park on the Virignia–Kentucky border, officially opened in 1955. / Courtesy Library of Virginia, Library of American Landscape History

African American self-help and advocacy was crucial in obtaining their own quality recreational facilities. In 1920, the Parks and Recreation Association (PRA) “added a Bureau of Colored Work, directed by Ernest Attwell – a graduate of the Tuskegee Institute – to help ensure more adequate park provision for African Americans,” O’Brien writes. The PRA was established in 1906 to support the development of state parks in the US Attwell’s position and his efforts to grow quality recreational opportunities for African Americans was one of the first pivotal appointments within a state parks organization.

African Americans also created their own “private recreation retreats, including exclusive rural resorts in places such as Buckroe, Virginia, Idlewild, Michigan, and Gulfview, Mississippi.” Other African American intellectuals and leaders such as “Dr. John B. Watson, president of Pine Bluff’s Agricultural, Mechanical and Normal College (AM&N), a historically Black College” was instrumental in securing the first Arkansas park designed for African Americans.

Dr. John Brown Watson. / Courtesy John Brown Watson Collection, John Hay Library, Brown University Library, Library of American Landscape History

In ‘June 1937,’ [Watson] deeded to the state a hundred-acre parcel of his own land, located eight miles west of Pine Bluff, and a consortium of six government agencies, federal and state, agreed to spend $20,000 for park development.” Development of the park was only partially completed before Watson’s death in 1942. Given the lack of Arkansas state enthusiasm for fulfilling their commitments “his widow, Hattie M. Watson, sued for the return of the land to the Watson estate.” In 1944, her case was successful, and the land was returned to the Watson family.

One of the most fascinating examples of a Black-owned park during the segregation era was Gulfside State Park, owned and operated by Robert E. Jones, a Methodist bishop from Greensboro, North Carolina. O’Brien writes that “in 1923, he had purchased the property, which included a mansion once owned by President Andrew Jackson along with 300 acres…adjacent to 320 state-owned acres that Jones also acquired.” African Americans traveled from long distances to visit the park. “The New York Amsterdam News in 1926 hailed the resort as ‘the only project of its kind that has ever been launched in America.’ Park activities included summer schools, music venues, home economics, religious studies, and camping trips. Unfortunately, the Great Depression destroyed the financial viability of the park, its Gulfside Association, and its future.

Assessing the effect of Jim Crow laws on African Americans, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the Alphonse Fletcher University professor and director of the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research at Harvard University, states that “black men and women attempted to fight back in various ways, including nurturing their own segregated social and cultural institutions, especially churches, schools, colleges, self-help organizations. And black artists, creative artists, and localized IP grappled in their responses the so-called Negro Problem.”

A group photo at the bathhouse on Butler Beach in the 1950s, prior to the site’s development as a state park. / Courtesy State Archives of Florida, Library of American Landscape History

O’Brien’s balanced research on Black self-help to achieve some measure of recreational access in the face of Jim Crow is one of the crowning successes of his book. There are many other well researched elements in the book relating to the history of the “Negro Problem,” park planning and politics, post-World War II separate but equal policies, and court battles primarily brought by the NAACP to dismantle park segregation. Together, these research areas build a much-needed historical record of Jim Crow and the exclusion of African Americans in southern state parks.

While Landscapes of Exclusion is comprehensive, O’Brien’s academic prose and roaming timeline structure often makes reading the book a slow process. This is not inherently bad, and readers should do the work necessary to read and learn from O’Brien’s historical survey. Anyone researching landscape, planning, and public space history will find this book interesting. O’Brien has crafted an intensively researched history of the political, social, racial, and environmental implications of Jim Crow practices and the unfair distribution of parks in the southern United States. His work can withstand present day attempts to deny history and turn facts into divisive political weapons.

Glenn LaRue SmithFASLA, is cofounder and principal of PUSH studio in Washington, DC, and founder and former president of the Black Landscape Architects Network (BlackLAN). His landscape architecture projects include garden designs, urban waterfronts, community redevelopment, playgrounds and memorial monument design. He has directed graduate landscape architecture programs at two historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) — Florida A&M University and Morgan State University.

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