Study Seeks to Document the History of National Park Segregation and its Lasting Effects

Feb 25, 2020

Credit National Park Service/Katy Cain via flickr.com

Evidence of the legacy of segregation in Virginia’s national park sites is hidden in plain sight.

Now, a study of how parks were segregated is looking at how the park service can highlight that history to campers and hikers.  It will also try to determine if history has something to do with how different groups are represented in park visitorship. 

At Shenandoah National Park’s visitor center, you’ll walk through exhibits featuring local folk songs, the park’s founding, and its role in the new deal.   But you’ll also find an exhibit that explores one of the uglier parts of the park’s history. 

Credit National Park Service

Claire Comer points out one indicator.  "This is a map that's from that era. And as you can see right here is Lewis Mountain is is denoted and under Lewis Mountain is the word colored and it's circled in red ink," she notes.  That red circle was to tell African-Americans that while in Shenandoah National Park, they had to stay at the Lewis Mountain campground.

Claire Comer is the interpretive specialist at the park, and helped create this exhibit after a series of oral history interviews in 2007. But the park wants to go further.  "We felt like the work that had been done so far stopped short of really establishing a national context for the story. And we really feel like it has a national context," Comer says.

The regional office of the National Park Service cooperated with the Organization of American Historians to commission a historical resource study. Erin Devlin is a history professor at University of Mary Washington. She’s poured over planning documents, blueprints, and maps in the hopes of understanding how segregation was implemented at the park.  She's built a whole filing cabinet full of sources. One drawer holds documents relevant to the state of Virginia, which resisted federal efforts to desegregate.

That evidence of segregation is right in front of park visitors all over Virginia, it's just a matter of seeing it. "There are some picnic tables that are in an open meadow and there are other picnic tables that are in a shaded wood," Devlin notes.  "And that is a product of, in some cases, this legacy of planning for segregation and that there was a desire to tuck away African-American visitors in quiet corners of the parks."

Today race still affects the way Americans, specifically African Americans, experience being outside.   "The outdoors had been a hostile place, kind of known as a hostile place for for for African-Americans," says David Lynch, a graduate assistant at Virginia Commonwealth University’s outdoor adventure program. He’s also African American. His parents were worried about him spending time biking or backpacking.  "They were less afraid of me getting eaten by bears and more afraid of what other people could do," Lynch says.  "So I think there’s a legacy there."

An exhibit in the Byrd Visitor Center at Shenandoah National Park
Credit National Park Service

In a survey in 2011 Shenandoah National Park found African Americans only made up 1% of park visitors. Claire Comer is hoping to do more research into segregation’s effect on visitorship today.   "We'll look at the issue of whether the the low numbers of African-Americans who experience Shenandoah has something to do with a time when people didn't feel welcome here."

Beyond the history segregated facilities and visitorship numbers today, race is relevant for other facets of the park’s past and present. Many sites were built by segregated labor during the New Deal, according to UMW professor Erin Devlin.  "I always tell students that the next time you’re driving down Colonial Parkway in the spring and you see all those beautiful red buds and the dogwoods and all those beautiful flowering trees that we all enjoy... that is the legacy of the contribution of these enrollees... we experience it as a natural landscape, it is a constructed landscape."

David Lynch says acknowledging this history is a good first step towards being inclusive, but in the meantime he’s trying to make the outdoors accessible to others himself. "I try to make it a very welcoming place because I have not been always welcome."

Segregation and Desegregation at Shenandoah National Park

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.