Charles Young Community Center

"All public parks established and maintained for the recreation, pleasure and welfare of the white population in cities of the second class shall be held, managed and controlled by a "Board of Park Commissioners (White)" of the city wherein the parks are located, and all public parks established and maintained for the recreation, pleasure and welfare of the colored population in cities of the second class shall be held, managed and controlled by a "Board of Park Commissioners (Colored)" of the city wherein the parks are located. Each Board shall be a corporation with perpetual succession."
-1942 Kentucky Revised Statutes

From 1942 to 1956 seven Kentucky cities had a State mandated, segregated park system. However unsettling the breadth of segregation appears to us today, the language of the 1942 law is unremarkable knowledge for those many African-Americans who came to adulthood in this period and navigated through daily acts of racist practice. Indeed, the segregated landscape emerged with a startling depth across Kentucky well-prior to this 1942 state law where individual cities enacted local ordinances segregating parks: Louisville parks were legally divided by 1924, Lexington by 1916, and Owensboro in 1894.

Map of Kentucky Parks

Although the question of why parks were segregated is outside the scope of this presentation, I want to argue that black parks, like schools and churches for African-American communities, were crucial daily geographies that empowered black identities despite the dehumanizing eclipse of racism, which initially created this segregated landscape.

Moreover, the goals of the site are to:

Fuse recent discussion in Culture Studies and Urban History to capture meaning from daily used spaces and the aesthetics they sustain

Move into the daily geography of Lexington's once legally segregated, urban park system

Propose a methodology that strengthens the continuum between individual lives, public histories, and communities

A progressive historiographical approach, broadly documented in a 1995 double-edition of the Journal of Urban History, advocates a revaluation and redirection in how African-American history is conducted. Speaking to the methodology of historical interpretation, this double-edition emphasizes that rather than focus on the powerlessness and victimhood of black life, scholars should revisit how black communities struggled with, and resisted, racist domination. Instead of documenting people and the communities they compose as, "victims of white racism or slum pathologies," the New African American history, "conveys a sense of active involvement, of people empowered, engaged in struggle, living their lives, and shaping their futures"

Robin Kelly, cited as an important scholar in this revaluation, reads political significance and resistance from the recreation spaces of black communities:

"Even modes of leisure could undergrid opposition...for members of a class whose long workdays were spent in backbreaking, low-paid wage work in settings pervaded by racism, the places where they played were more than relatively free places to articulate grievances and dreams. They were places that enabled African-Americans to take back their bodies, to recuperate, to be together...Knowing what happens in these spaces of pleasure can help us understand the solidarity black people have shown at political mass meetings, [and] illuminate the bonds of fellowship one finds in churches and voluntary associations..." (1993, p84-85).

Here, we see an emphasis on the daily patterns of existence where we can begin to read power from and into the density of black life. These patterns, previously regarded as common, routine, or even vulgar, are now held as politically significant in the cultural production they sustain. Patterns, which in their cumulating effect, accelerated the daily life into the community and cultural production into the political.

Implicit in this appeal, but never fully developed is the concept of aesthetics. Aesthetics here is not just a theory of art nor an elitist concern with appearances, but rather, it is a process of capturing identity in an act of self-possessing space.

Whether we look at spaces of recreation or political solidarity, it is on and through individuals that a community identity rests in a fusion of language, dress, movement and expression. If we are to value how black communities forged meaning into daily life, we must understand how individuals sculpted, shaped, and represented this life. We must understand their daily aesthetic.

Thus when we look at segregated parks, we should acknowledge but move beyond oppresive force of racism to ask: what was expressed and established in this daily geography of recreation and leisure that strengthened a positive sense of self and place?

Please imagine that it is the 4th of July in 1916, just at the peak of the Great War, 50 years after the Civil War, but just twenty years after the precedent set by Supreme Court with the seperate-but-equal decision in Plessy vs. Fergusson...

"Fredrick Douglass Park, the first public park for colored people ever opened in Lexington, was dedicated yesterday afternoon with elaborate exercises, preceded by a parade fully a mile in length and managed entirely by the committee of colored citizens appointed to arrange for the celebration. A crowd estimated at 5,000 filled the park and heard the program of addresses and music which had been arranged...[A]ll the addresses express[ed] the spirit of appreciation of what the officials of Lexington are trying to do for its citizens, and were expressive of the good will and public spirit felt by the colored citizens of the city."
The Lexington Herald, July 5, 1916.

Lexington Map

Frederick Douglass Park, a 25-acre park, was dedicated on the north side of Lexington in 1916; fourteen years later, Charles Young Community Center was built on the City's east side of the. Later in the 1930's, a community swimming pool was installed in Douglass Park. These facilities, along with approximately ten other playgrounds, comprised the black park system of Lexington, which was administered, managed, and programmed by black residents of Lexington until 1956.

Because Lexington centered on the second largest African-American population in the State and had the largest and most developed black park system in the state,
celebrations such as summer holidays, athletic tournaments and County Fairs attracted many black communities from the surrounding counties. As reported in a local newspaper, one week in August in 1932, over 20,000 people visited the park system. During this week, community singings were held in all the parks with a quartet contest the following week, a beauty contest in Douglass Park, a hike from Prall Street Playground to Jonestown, and a County Fair held at Douglass Park:

"The county fair held at Douglass Park all day Friday was quite a gala affair. Much interest was displayed on the part of patrons and participants. Never before in the history of playgrounds has there been such a festivity."
Lexington Herald, August28, 1924

Mr. John Will "Scoop" Brown, a long-time Director of Recreation for black parks beginning in the late 1930's, suggests that Douglass Park was not uni-functional during segregation; it staged multiple uses for multiple black communities. It was a place where people could `let off steam' and communicate common frustrations. The park supported community organizing and a wide spectrum of other programs: recreation for adults and children, summer carnivals and parades, church and family reunions, band concerts, and talent and entertainment programs. "Scoop" Brown clarifies that when one walked into Douglass Park it was not just entertainment, reunions, or activism; all were fused together.

Lucy Rowe Estill was the youngest of three children and was born 15 miles North of Lexington in 1906. Her mother graduated from the esteemed Berea College before the Kentucky Legislature segregated the institution in 1904. Ten years after Mrs. Estill graduated from high school in 1927, she completed a certificate program in recreation supported by the National Recreation Association. The certificate noted these activities:

Philosophy of Recreation
Organization and Administration
Music Recreation
Physical Recreation
Arts and Crafts Recreation
Story Telling
Song Plays
Folk Dancing
First Aid

Later in 1946 she became one of the five members of the Board of Park Commissioners for the black park system until it was dismantled under integration.

Importantly, black parks under the creative force of individuals like Mr. Brown and Mrs. Estill, provided a space for the re-mapping of public celebrations, and their symbols, into a black context. Since these parks were managed by black residents within the city government, programs often fused political activism with cultural expression.

As with the dedication of Douglass Park, many celebrations included parades, an extremely visible expression of solidarity. Parades captured space and allowed a performance of identity; they staged an empowering aesthetic in front of white criticism and discrimination.

This quote is from a local newspaper in 1920:

"The colored people under the auspices of the Emancipation executive committee of which Rev. E. T. Offutt is chairman, have arranged a big Independence Day celebration and parade to Douglass Park Monday. The line of march will mobilize at the corner of Short and Deweese. A brass band will head the procession, followed by uniform orders and war veterans of all wars. The various Sunday schools will be represented in trucks decorated bearing the name of the school. The old veterans of the Civil War will ride in autos provided for them. The parade will start promptly at 11 o'clock, going down Deweese to Main, west on Main to Jefferson, north on Jefferson to Third, west on Third to Georgetown, and to Douglass Park."
Lexington Herald, July 4, 1920

Despite the thrill of this parade, the Lexington City government unfortunately did not preserve the history of the black park system as it did the white parks. However I would like to conclude with a simple appeal. Douglass Park celebrated its 80th anniversary this year, and perhaps like many other southern cities, this park, or one like it, is one of the oldest public spaces still in existence. If we are explore and preserve how Lexington's black park system had a rich and vital meaning for many communities, we must embrace an oral history methodology that sustains the link between individual lives, public history and community. Indeed, many of the individuals who worked, played, and participated in this park system and gave strength to their community are still with us today, but not forever.

please contact Boyd Shearer