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African American History at T.O. Fuller State Park

February 17, 2021  |  Permalink

Photo: An aerial view of the former Shelby County Negro State Park, now T.O. Fuller State Park, area looking toward Memphis, Tenn., from an elevation of 2,000 feet. Sourced from TSLA. Taken in 1938.

As we celebrate Black History Month throughout February, we also recognize the ties to our cultural heritage. Shared and equitable access to our parks is directly tied to our mission to preserve our natural landscape and the history behind it. T. O. Fuller State Park was established for the state’s African American population in an age when segregation barred equal access to the landscape.

T.O. Fuller State Park

T.O. Fuller State Park was established in 1938 as the Shelby County Negro State Park, the first state park built for African Americans east of the Mississippi River. It was given its current name in 1942 for Dr. Thomas O. Fuller, an African American pastor, activist, and long-time principal of the city's Howe Institute. It is situated on one thousand acres just south of downtown Memphis, chosen for its proximity to the metropolitan area that was home to a large African American population. The cost of the property was also quite low, given that the land was deemed to have little agricultural value.

The entrance to the Chucalissa Indian Village

Photo: The entrance to the Chucalissa Indian Village in Memphis, Tennessee. Sourced from TVA. Taken in 1957.

Along with federal funding and pressure from the NAACP, the park was built with combined efforts from several New Deal-era agencies, including the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), Works Progress Administration (WPA), and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). It was a group of CCC workers that uncovered the Chucalissa Indian Village on-site while digging to build the park's swimming pool in 1940.

Swimming Pool at T.O. Fuller State Park

Photos from left to right: Diving at the swimming pool in T.O. Fuller State Park in 1967. The swimming pool at T.O. Fuller State Park in 1938. Both sourced from TVA.

Although state parks were created with the intent to provide access to the landscape and its resources, African Americans were often limited in terms of what park amenities they could use. African American travelers sometimes used publications like the Negro Motorist Green Book, published between 1936 and 1964, to denote spaces where they had safer and friendlier access. While building parks like T.O. Fuller helped to create an outdoor recreational space for African Americans, the progress of their construction and usage was often hindered by white resistance.

Aerial view of the Civilian Conservation Corps Camp at T.O. Fuller State Park

Photo: Aerial view of the Civilian Conservation Corps work camp at the former Shelby City Negro State Park, now T.O. Fuller State Park. Sourced from TVA. Taken in 1938.

It was not until 1962 that Tennessee State Park facilities were desegregated. T.O. Fuller State Park is just one of the three southern state parks built for African American use that continue to operate and educate under their original namesakes.


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