Black History Month: Remembering Georgia’s First State Park for African Americans

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This February, plan to celebrate Black History Month at Cartersville’s George Washington Carver Park (3900 Bartow Carver Rd, Acworth), founded in 1950 as Georgia’s first state park for black Americans. Recently renovated under new management of the Cartersville-Bartow County Convention & Visitors Bureau, the park now features interpretive signage as well as picnic areas and scenic views from the prettiest beach on Allatoona Lake. The public is invited to the annual Memories Day Celebration, February 24, 2018, a reunion for all those who enjoyed time at “The Beach” during the park’s early days, from 1950-1975. Families are encouraged to bring photos, videos and memorabilia to share with others. This year, the Etowah Valley Historical Society also hopes to preview its African American Quilt Documentation Project.

In 1950, the nearest African American recreational site, American Beach, was a 700-mile round trip from Atlanta. As Morehouse College graduate Martin Luther King, Jr. was studying for his divinity degree, and five years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her Montgomery bus seat, a Civil Rights victory was achieved when George Washington Carver Park was established and John Loyd Atkinson, a Tuskegee Airman in World War II, became the first black man to be hired as superintendent of a Georgia State Park. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had completed Allatoona Dam, and Georgia State Parks leased 1,457 acres that became Red Top Mountain State Park, plus an additional 345 acres to create George Washington Carver State Park.

As Atkinson predicted, families from Atlanta, Birmingham and Charlotte flocked to George Washington Carver Park, fondly known as “The Beach,” for church picnics, family reunions and to see the famed St. John’s Ski Bees each Summer. Atkinson cultivated the park until 1958. Cartersville resident Clarence Benham became the new park superintendent and operated the park alongside his family. His son Robert Benham, who would later become Georgia’s first black Supreme Court Chief Justice, “had the pleasure of growing up at the park.” Justice Benham shares that “most people saw the park as a refuge” from day to day life, and “looked forward to the weekend when they could come to The Beach.”

In 1970, the park was removed from Georgia’s park system and its lease was transferred to Bartow County. In support of Bartow County’s efforts to preserve the park’s Civil Rights History, the Georgia Department of Economic Development-Tourism Division awarded a Tourism Product Development Grant of $5,000, matched by Bartow County, as a first step in sharing the important history of the park. The grant was used to create and install exterior and interior interpretive signs.

A second Tourism Product Development Grant, to be completed in 2018, will see Bartow County Government and the Cartersville-Bartow County Convention & Visitors Bureau undertaking additional renovations with a key task to uncover the original indoor grill built by Atkinson, a vital component that fed many early park visitors.

During the February Memories Day Celebration, the public is invited to be the first to see so many of the restorative efforts taking place. The celebration will also include representations of other historic places along what is hoped to become a Black History Trail in Bartow County. Some of these include Noble Hill-Wheeler Memorial Foundation and Rosenwald School, Euharlee’s Black Pioneer Cemetery and Adairsville’s First Black Business.

Save the date: On the same weekend (February 24, 2018), the Booth Western Art Museum will honor Sculptor Ed Dwight for Lifetime Achievement.  http://boothmuseum.org/events/gala/

George Washington Carver Park is operated by the Cartersville-Bartow County Convention & Visitors Bureau, under a management agreement with Bartow County Government. Learn more about the park’s history at http://visitcartersvillega.org/gwcp/.

To reserve the park, beach and indoor pavilion for special events call the Cartersville-Bartow County Convention & Visitors Bureau, 770-387-1357.