LONGDALE – In 1937, a Clifton Forge minister won what was an unlikely civil rights victory for his time. Hugo Austin persuaded the federal government to build an outdoor recreation area that would allow Black visitors.
The year before, Douthat State Park had opened in Alleghany County, carved out of the forest by the Civilian Conservation Corps. It was one of the six original state parks in Virginia and, given the customs of the time, it was segregated – whites only.
Black residents of the Alleghany Highlands wanted a park, too. Austin, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Clifton Forge, led the campaign, backed by the Clifton Forge NAACP. A year later, the U.S. Forest Service agreed to create what became known as Green Pastures in the national forest of eastern Alleghany County.
The constituted history: Green Pastures was the first Blacks-only Forest Service recreation area in Virginia and, according to Gov. Ralph Northam, “likely the only one nationwide.” The park quickly became so popular that Black families drove from as far away as Maryland to make use of it. When the park’s cabins were full, nearby Black churches arranged for members to host park visitors in their homes.
Times changed: In 1950, the park officially integrated as part of federal policy but policy and practice were two different things. In 1963, the Forest Service changed the name to Longdale Recreation Area as a way to make the site more inviting to white visitors. It apparently worked. Clifton Forge Mayor Pam Marshall – the first Black woman to hold that post, by the way – remembers how popular the site was in the ’60s with both white and Black families. “As soon as we turned off the road, we were assaulted by the sound of laughter,” she said. There were so many people at the beach that from a distance “they were like ants.”
Then times changed again: The park deteriorated. Marshall blames Forest Service funding being diverted to fight fires out west. Whatever the precise cause, federal funding for maintaining facilities has been thin. “In the ’90s, the park was overgrown by forest growth and snakes,” Marshall said. A story in The Roanoke Times two years ago described a sorry state of affairs: “The lake is discolored by algae and pollen, and a sign at water’s edge reads, ‘No swimming. Unsafe conditions.’ Tulip poplar seedlings and weeds sprout in the sand. The historic bath houses, constructed by the all-black Camp Dolly Ann company of the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1940s, are locked. A concrete bridge is in disrepair and closed to vehicles.”
Now times have changed yet again. On Friday, Northam and a delegation of local, state and federal officials were on hand to witness the park’s re-opening – this time operated by the state, and with its historic name restored.
“It is important to acknowledge past wrongs,” Northam said, “ and when possible we need to address those wrongs.”
Green Pastures’ historic status as a Black recreation area was so far in the past that not even Marshall knew until 2017. She credits Calvin Andre McClinton – “he liked to use all three names” – with issuing a “clarion call” in the community to restore the park. McClinton, who grew up in nearby Wrightsville, went on to a storied international career as a theatre professor and performer, and then returned home to Alleghany County in retirement, made a passionate case for restoring the park. Others joined in. Alleghany County Supervisor Joan Vannorsdall, worked on a committee that put together a booklet of stories from people who remembered Green Pastures in its heydey and sent copies to Richmond. Steve Nicely, grandson of the park’s caretaker in the ’60s, led a local group that cared for Green Pastures when the federal government couldn’t. “He would send me pictures of bears vandalizing the buildings,” said Del. Terry Austin, R-Botetourt County, whose district includes Green Pastures.
Marshall touted the turnaround of Green Pastures as “a miracle in the mountains” because in the beginning few involved with the campaign thought it would be successful. However, the local campaign for Green Pastures benefited from propitious timing: After the infamous “blackface” scandal, Northam rededicated his term to social justice issues and Green Pastures became part of that. It certainly didn’t hurt that both of Alleghany’s legislators – Austin on the House side, Democrat Creigh Deeds on the Senate side – are members of their chamber’s budget-writing committees, and that both have enough seniority to qualify for the select conference committee that works out any differences between the two. In 2020, the final budget included $342,678 for Green Pastures in 2020-21 and $209,509 for 2021-22.
On Friday, with the stroke of the governor’s pen, Green Pastures officially became a satellite of Douthat State Park – owned by the federal government but operated by the state. One key player wasn’t there to help cut the ceremonial red ribbon: McClinton passed away earlier this year. Marshall brought a photo of him to display while she spoke. She said a refurbished Green Pastures – 15 minutes away from Clifton Forge – is a key part of the town’s strategy to capture more outdoor-related business from visitors to the Alleghany Highlands. But there’s more to a re-opened Green Pastures than simply greenbacks, she said. “We had a part of our history restored today.”
Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.