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Remembering When Virginia's State Parks Were Segregated

Linda Edmonds Turner
Special Collections and University Archives, Virginia Tech

In 1936, Virginia became the first state to open a park system, notable for being "not more than an hour’s" drive from anywhere in the Commonwealth. But for Black Virginians, no amount of drive time would have gotten them past the entrance.


A few years after Virginia’s state parks opened, engineers built a dam on the New River to generate electricity. That project created Claytor Lake State Park in Pulaski County. 

“When the dam was constructed and they were promoting Claytor Lake, the town issued town tags that had something to the effect of 'Visit the Claytor Lake' or whatever.”

Kathleen Morrison Lives in Dublin and she remembers a story about her father and the lake from decades ago.

“And at that time, Blacks could not go to the lake, could not participate in the activities there. So, when the time came for town tags to come out and my daddy had purchased his, he put his upside down. He said, 'Why should I promote something I can’t participate in?'"


Her Dad’s protest hardly hiding in plain sight. “We had a photograph of him where he was standing in front of his car with the tags upside down, so if you wanted to read it you had to first decipher what it was saying and then try to understand what it was saying.”

 You had to understand what it wassaying.   And people did.

“That was the community of the time,” Morrison says. “They were always the people in the community who, if there was an injustice, they spoke up. They didn’t wait for it to become an issue. You know, say 'that’s not right' and 'it shouldn’t be that way.' May not have been able to do anything about it at that time, but at least they vocalized where they had an issue or concern.”

It wasn’t until 1964, when Congress passed the Civil Rights Act, that segregation in public places was outlawed.

 Community members and museum professionals created The Montgomery County Oral Legacy Project in 2018. Virginia Tech History professor, Jessica Taylor runs the program.  You can find a link to it here.


Robbie Harris is based in Blacksburg, covering the New River Valley and southwestern Virginia.