Honor Black History at Tennessee State Parks
February 1, 2023 | Permalink
This February during Black History Month and throughout the year, we invite you to reflect on Black history in state parks across Tennessee. Explore state parks that preserve and share Black history and heritage or find a park program to attend.
Johnsonville State Historic Park
Johnsonville State Historic Park preserves the site of the Civil War-era Johnsonville Depot. A significant US military facility, Confederate forces attacked the depot in November of 1864. After the war, descendants of the United States Colored Troops who defended the site returned to start their lives as a free people. The park staff currently believes several of the oldest graves in the cemetery contain soldiers from the United States Colored Troops (USCT). These men enlisted in the United States Army to fight for their freedom from enslavement.
Near the remains of the old depot, there are at least 160 graves from the post-war African American Methodist Church. Many of these graves escaped initial surveys of the site. The park is currently working with staff members from the Tennessee Division of Archaeology to locate the remaining graves.
T.O. Fuller State Park
T.O. Fuller State Park takes its name from Thomas Oscar Fuller, a prominent minister, and leader in Memphis. Originally from North Carolina, Fuller moved to Memphis in 1900. He founded several churches in the area. He also worked as an educator and community leader to provide opportunities when few were available. During his time in Memphis, Fuller was responsible for establishing the Howe Institute. This school provided its students with industrial training. However, it also offered a broad array of different academic studies. In the 1930s, Fuller went on to publish several books on Black life. He died in 1942.
At the time of its purchase by the state in 1940, T.O. Fuller was one of only two state parks in Tennessee open to African Americans. Inside the park was the first golf course in Memphis available for play to the black community. You can still walk the cart paths of this old course today as you walk through the recreated native wetland.
The park has also hosted many community events that provide a space for children to experience outdoor recreation in a safe environment. For many people growing up in Memphis, hiking along the trails in this park was their first introduction to the unique ecosystems and landscapes along the Mississippi River. Learn more about African American history at T.O. Fuller State Park here.
This February, T.O. Fuller State Park will be offering a Black History Month Speaker Series, open and free to the public. Every Saturday in February, the series will feature a different engaging speaker and subject matter showcasing local/regional Black history and light refreshments will be served.
Week 1—Saturday, February 4, 2 pm, Park manager Jessica Gossett will speak about "History of T.O. Fuller State Park and Thomas Oscar Fuller."
Week 2—Saturday, February 11, 2 pm, Judge Tarik B. Sugarmon, Juvenile Court Judge will speak about the "History of the Afro-American Vote."
Week 3—Saturday, February 18, 2 pm, Andrew Withers, Curator/Archivist Withers House Museum will talk about his father "Ernest Withers: Civil Rights Photojournoulism."
Week 4—Saturday, February 25, Closing reception will feature a previously recorded talk by Leigh Gardner, Justin P. Wilson Cumberland Scenic Trail State Park Ranger about "Civil Rights in Tennessee." Refreshments will be served and a tour of our Black History exhibit.
Fort Pillow State Historic Park
This site of the infamous battle of Fort Pillow has been significant to the descendants of the United States Colored Troops who fought and died for their freedom along the banks of the Mississippi River. The memory of these events became a rallying cry for USCT instantly. During the Battle of Nashville in 1864, soldiers fighting during the Battle of Nashville in December of 1864 charged Confederate Regiments shouting, “Remember Fort Pillow!”
Today, the site serves as a reminder of their struggle for freedom and resistance to the institution of slavery. As you walk along with its earthworks, quietly reflect on the people who fled enslavement and took up arms for a chance and freedom.
Every April, park staff commemorate the battle by laying wreaths at the National Cemetery in Memphis and the park.
South Cumberland State Park
The Tennessee Coal and Railroad Company constructed Lone Rock Coke ovens at the Grundy Lake Historic Area, located inside South Cumberland State Park. Taking advantage of the convict leasing systems, the company paid one dollar per inmate a day to Tennessee for prison labor. Black men made up the vast majority of these laborers. State officials rounded up these men for petty crimes such as loitering, vagrancy, and not carrying proof of employment. After their convictions, these officials rushed these men into harsh and dangerous servitude. Today, authors have referred to the practice as “slavery by another name.” Both companies and states profited from the arrangement.
The presence of prisoners also angered local miners who wanted the jobs taken by prisoners. 1892, these miners burned the stockade holding the prisoners. Within a few years, the state abolished the system ending the practice.
Booker T. Washington State Park
Booker T. Washington State Park takes its name from the famous educator and founder of the Tuskegee Institute. It has served as a place for family gatherings and educating park visitors since its opening. The Tennessee Valley Authority developed and leased the park to the state in 1938. The original plans for the park called for the creation of cabins and campgrounds. However, facilities were slow in arriving at the park. Despite pleas for greater access to parks across the state, this was one of only two state parks open to Black Tennesseans before state parks quietly desegregated in 1962.
Despite this, the park quickly became a significant part of community life for Chattanooga residents. Weekend gatherings at the park featured families and became a regular occurrence. Today the park provides visitors with a variety of activities along the banks of the Chickamauga Reservoir. The park features several hiking trails, boat docks, fishing spots, and picnic areas.
Learn more about African American history at Booker T. Washington State Park here.
Fort Loudoun State Historic Park
Enslaved to a back-country trader and merchant Samuel Benn, Abram risked his life to earn his freedom. During the siege of Fort Loudoun in 1760, the garrison failed to get messages to Charlestown. After several soldiers attempted to escape Cherokee warriors and failed, Abram agreed to make the journey in exchange for his freedom. Abram used his skills as a woodsman and guide to elude Cherokee warriors and make it back to South Carolina. He survived many dangers and made several trips from the Fort to Charlestown and back. Abram even survived a bout with smallpox. However, he was successful in his endeavors. After the war, the colony of South Carolina purchased his freedom from Samuel Benn.