Preserving A Loved Park

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Area Residents Rally To Save Alleghany Site

Reports of poor upkeep and partial closure at a historically African-American park in Alleghany County have raised concerns among Lexington residents who remember when Virginia’s state parks weren’t open to African-Americans, and Green Pastures, which was created by the National Forest Service just for them, was a unique place of family fun and relaxation in an otherwise difficult era.

Detailed in a June 23 feature in The Roanoke Times, the park’s dire condition has led officers of the Rockbridge Chapter of the NAACP to express support for preserving the 80-year-old amenity as an important piece of Virginia’s African-American history.

Now, as groups and individuals, including an advocacy group Friends of Green Pastures, call for the federal park’s preservation, state officials are planning to meet at the park this month to assess its condition prior to a possible request for state park staff assigned to Green Pastures in 2020.

As described in the Roanoke Times article and a Friends of Green Pastures brochure, Green Pastures opened in 1940 as one of the few “colored only” recreation areas in the United States, at a time when the state parks, including nearby Douthat, were closed to African-Americans. The park was created within the national forest at the request of the Clifton Forge chapter of the NAACP and the insistence of a local Baptist pastor. The name of the park is thought to have been inspired by Psalm 23, with the verses: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; He leadeth me beside the still waters; He restoreth my soul.”

The approximately 200-acre park, with its typical Civilian Conservation Corps-style collection of stone-and-wood buildings, hiking trails and 2-acre lake, was constructed by the Dolly Ann CCC Camp F24, which included young men from the Clifton Forge area. For the first several years, Green Pastures was administered by the Glenwood Ranger District on the Jefferson National Forest. The park was closed during the United States’ participation in World War II. In 1948, when the James River Ranger District was formed, the park was transferred to the administration of the George Washington National Forest. The park was integrated in 1950, when the U.S. military integrated its forces. In 1963 the park was renamed Longdale Recreation Area, referring to the nearby community of Longdale.

Currently, a vehicular access bridge into the park is cracked, the buildings are in disrepair and shuttered, and the lake is posted as closed to swimmers, meaning that Green Pastures at Longdale – the name now used by the Friends group – is open only for hikers using the trails.

After reading about the park’s difficulties, Lexington resident and City Council member Marylin Alexander was quick to respond. “Green Pastures was quite significant to African-Americans here,” she said in an interview. “Even when churches had their church picnics, it was the go-to place to recreate, cook out, and get in the water. There was no other place to swim here except the river. It would be nice to see the park restored. Maybe it would bring back a lot of memories.”

Alexander, who was born in the early 1950s, was the youngest of four siblings and has only vague memories of riding over to the park in a car as a little girl. But she was aware that her family had made frequent trips there in previous years and had previously seen photos of the family enjoying the park, in particular a picture of her older sister, Wyllona, as a toddler with her father, George Evans Sr., relaxing on a grassy bank, the lake in the background.

Speaking on the phone from her home in Gloucester, Wyllona Evans Harris, a retired teacher, shared sparkling memories of her trips to Green Pastures. “There were loads of trips there – it was very exciting,” she recalled. “The beach was full of folks and everyone was enjoying themselves.”

During her youth in the 1940s and early 1950s, she said, the two African-American churches in town cooperated in many projects, including the annual church picnic. “Every year, First Baptist and Randolph Street Methodist churches held their combined Sunday school picnic at Green Pastures. If you had regular attendance at Sunday School – and we always did – it was a free trip.”

A local newspaper photographer came to take a photo of the church buses lined up, with people grouped in front getting ready to go to Green Pastures. “We found that photo and went over it person by person,” said Harris, a bit sadly. “Now so many are deceased.”

In addition to church picnics, there were family outings to the park, which were “always delightful, with good times,” said Harris. “I remember that my older brother, George ‘Skip’ Evans, was one of the few true swimmers. He was very comfortable in the water, doing flips and handstands, showing off for me.” Other members of the family, not as proficient in the water, enjoyed the sandy beach, she said.

With her mother’s sister living just around the corner in Lexington, both families often went out to Green Pastures at the same time, said Harris. “It was always a great gathering. There was wonderful food – but we had to wait one hour before going back in the water,” she recalled, referring to the recommendation of giving food enough time to digest before swimming, to prevent cramps.

Lexington is also connected to Green Pastures through its first administrator, Clarence Wood (1890-1957), a Lexington resident. His son, Alex Wood, who died four years ago, donated the family’s Walker-Wood papers to Special Collections at Lyburn Library, Washington and Lee in 2007. At that time, he talked about how his father had found and returned a fraternity ring belonging to then-Gov. James Price’s son. When the governor came to Lexington to claim the ring, he urged Clarence Wood to let him know if he could ever do anything for him. When Green Pastures was built and the administrator’s job opened up, Wood applied for the job. A letter in the family papers from Governor Price offers Wood the position: “This is quite a compliment to you and I feel sure that you will give a good account of yourself,” the governor wrote.

The job at Green Pastures was prestigious, as a federal position, Alex Wood commented, in a 2003 oral history project about prominent Lexington African-Americans conducted by Washington and Lee students. Alex Wood said he and his brother had the opportunity to watch the park being constructed by the CCC camp and later lived at the park during the summers, learning how to swim in the lake. For one year, Alex was even park co-administrator with his father.

A summer 2007 visit to the park by this reporter and Betty Kondayan, volunteer archivist of the Walker-Wood papers, and Lexington resident and bird-guide author Shirley Scott found a serene, leafy-green gem, with no one else there. However, the buildings were open and the lake was swimmable, with some submerged branches and weeds near the shore.

Marquita Dunn, vice president of the Rockbridge NAACP, was alarmed when she read the Roanoke Times article on Green Pastures and shared it with her friends on social media. While too young to have gone to Green Pastures prior to integration, she recalled that her parents went there, as did “plenty of people – it was the only place they could go.”

“It needs a lot of work, but I would hate to see it go to waste. It was a very vital part of the African-American community,” Dunn declared.

Mark Miller, secretary of the Rockbridge NAACP, also supports the restoration of Green Pastures at Longdale. (He noted the endearingly appropriate acronym for the group: FROGPALs.) He is executive director of the Virginia Wilderness Committee, which helps raise awareness of Virginia’s wilderness areas, or, as he puts it, “protect the best that Virginia’s public lands have to offer.” However, he said, his support of Green Pastures, which is not a wilderness area, is “not associated with my work as much as with the fact that it’s a nice place, a pretty place, and of historical significance.”

Miller, who has written guidebooks about hiking trails in Rockbridge County and Virginia, recently revised and updated his “Fine Trails of Rockbridge” to include, among other additions, the trails accessible from Green Pastures. These are Blue Suck Run Trail

(1.7 miles long) and Yaccers Run Trail (2.2 miles) and the longer loop trails of Anthony’s Knob Trail (4.5 miles) and North Mountain Trail (9.5 miles). The updated guidebook also includes trails of Brushy Hills, Moores Creek, Short Hills and Natural Bridge State Park – putting Green Pastures in good company for lovers of hikes within 35 miles of downtown Lexington.

Miller’s interest in public lands and forests make him more than usually aware of the fiscal costs of maintaining these areas. In his view, the neglect of Green Pastures in recent years “is not a reflection on the National Forest Service, but on the federal budget system, which has been cutting budgets even as firefighting requirements increase.”

“The Forest Service has to deal with natural disasters,” he explained, “which is a requirement that is only true for the NFS and no other federal agencies.” This means that even when Congress approves increased funds for firefighting, as it is now doing, the NFS “still won’t have enough staff to do everything it’s mandated to do,” Miller said.

Casting around for other budgetary fixes for the park, Miller suggested there could be grant possibilities, as well as potential support from the NAACP, on both the local and state levels.

However, two weeks ago came word of possible help from a different source: the state of Virginia. In an email to Miller and other Green Pastures supporters, Joan Vannorsdall, who organized an oral history about Green Pastures that was published in 2018 and quoted in the Roanoke Times article, said she’d been alerted by Sen. Creigh Deeds that Clyde Cristman, head of the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR), will visit Green Pastures in early August to assess the needs for maintaining the park. The plan, if it’s approved, will be to request a 2020 budget line item in the state budget for several new state employees at Douthat who would be designated for Green Pastures.

While the plan is hardly set in stone, Vannorsdall, a member of the Alleghany Board of Supervisors, is hopeful that the park will be rescued. “Positive news!” she concluded.