On April 4, 1938, Tennessee residents were informed of a unique park project to be undertaken on 500 acres of land along the Mississippi river bluffs, about three miles from Memphis. “This new forest park will give the negroes of Memphis and the tri-states a forest recreation center for their own use exclusively,” explained Shelby County commissioner E. W. Hale in the Kingsport, Tennessee Times. The Shelby County Negro State Park—as it was to be called—would be the first state park open for the use of African Americans east of the Mississippi River, where Jim Crow was the law of the land.
At the time, racial segregation on public recreational land in the South was enforced according to local, not federal, law. There were separate facilities for blacks and whites at Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, and blacks were banned from bathing at Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas and forced to use picnic grounds a mile from the white picnic grounds at Virginia’s George Washington Birthplace National Monument.
Company 1464 of the Civilian Conservation Corps—numbering 175 members, all of whom were black—was tasked with building the new state park. Part of a New Deal program established in 1933 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the CCC put around 3 million men to work building national and state parks over the course of nine years. Of those 3 million, only around 250,000—7 percent—were African American. Southern states accepted black enrollees only when forced to by the federal government; when all-black CCC companies moved into project areas, local residents often complained. The CCC instituted a policy of strict segregation: black enrollees couldn’t join camps outside their state, and black companies could only accept new enrollees when a vacancy opened up. All of these policies kept opportunities for African Americans minimal, despite wording in the CCC’s official documentation that stated “no discrimination shall be made on account of race, color, and creed.”
Company 1464 arrived at the new park site in 1939 and began clearing the forest, establishing trails, and excavating a site for a swimming pool; during the excavation, they found mounds of ancient pottery, and an archaeological team arrived. The archaeologists would continue work there until the United States entered World War II, in 1941.
Shelby Negro State Park was later renamed T. O. Fuller State Park, after Memphis minister and civic leader Thomas O. Fuller, who spoke at a park dedication ceremony attended by about 3,000 people. The CCC was dissolved at the beginning of the 1940s as federal funding was refocused on the war, and despite plans for “recreational facilities similar to other state parks, few improvements occurred outside of a recreation lodge, trails, roads, picnic shelters, and cleared land for outdoor activities,” according to Tennessee state historian Carroll Van West. During the 1950s, 20 new buildings, a boat dock, swimming pool, and other facilities were built; today, T. O. Fuller State Park encompasses 1,138 acres of trails, campgrounds, picnic sites, an Olympic-sized pool, and the Chucalissa archaeological site, which contains prehistoric remains of a Native American settlement.
The legacy of segregation in both the state and national parks systems continues, albeit unofficially, today; in 2011, the US National Park Service released a report stating that visitors to national parks were “predominantly white,” with African Americans representing just 7 percent of park visitors between 2008 and 2009. NPS employees were also 83 percent white. In response to these numbers, the NPS has created an Office of Relevancy, Diversity, and Inclusion to help diversify park attendance. “When you come out of a history of segregation, you don’t willy-nilly think that you can just go to a place,” African American park ranger Shelton Johnson told National Geographic in 2017. Finding a way to make people of color feel welcome outdoors, he added, is “an extension of the civil rights movement. Pure and simple.”
T. O. Fuller State Park feels removed from the rest of Memphis. Tucked into the far east corner of the city, its border is defined to the north by McKellar Lake, a tributary of the Mississippi River; to the west, by fields of industry—steel and gas plants, with ports on the great river; and, to the south, by South Third Street, leading away from Whitehaven, the neighborhood where I grew up.
Whitehaven, where Graceland is located, was a former-farming-community-turned-suburb before Memphis annexed it in 1969. The area experienced white flight in the 1970s, around the time of Elvis Presley’s death, and my family moved in during the mid-1980s. My experience of Whitehaven was relegated to school and our backyard. It was considered to be a dangerous area, but that never seeped into my psyche; it was just home.
One day in May, a few friends and I decided to visit T. O. Fuller, rehashing childhood trips there. Chasing these memories was akin to trying to catch lightning bugs in a season that wasn’t summer. Turning off South Third onto Mitchell Road, houses began to give way to foliage, and the park emerged. The Sunday morning dew, already evaporating in the Southern heat, gave the park its lush shimmer. City noises were far away and forgotten.
There were a few baseball fields and a basketball court; beyond them, I could see phone lines and industrial wire. It was like entering an alternate dimension. T. O. Fuller had been a destination for the school field trips of our youth; buses would pull up to the park’s Chucalissa archaeological site, and kids would pile out to poke around its museum’s small exhibition of pottery and tools.
The park seemed so much more expansive now. The unexpected quiet and stillness were unsettling. Occasionally a park ranger drove by, slowing down to catch a glimpse of the camera in my hands before speeding off. The community blackboard advertised a barbecue held a few weeks back.
The sun rose high over the trees, and it felt as though summer were on the horizon. Scientists, hikers, and hobbyists tend to use the park to seek out all forms of life: butterflies, frogs, birds. I came across a former park ranger and his mother, who had just finished their Sunday morning bird-watching session. They obliged my camera, the woman undoing her hair tie to reveal a cascade of hair. “My husband cut off five inches, so now I’m not speaking to him!” she joked.
Her son told me that he’d spent three years working at David Crockett State Park, which is some 200 miles away in Lawrenceburg, Tennessee. Like T. O. Fuller—which was first opened as an exclusively African American park—David Crockett was segregated when it was opened in 1959: there was one park manager for the black side, the ranger explained, and one for the white. When the park was integrated in the mid-1960s, the African American side fell into disrepair. When he arrived as a park ranger in 2015, the area had been abandoned, reclaimed by the wilderness.
Parks in Memphis are changing. Starting in 2013, the city council voted to rename three parks, replacing Confederate memorials with more innocuous names: Confederate Park became Memphis Park, Jefferson Davis Park became Mississippi River Park, and Nathan Bedford Forrest Park became Health Sciences Park. The equestrian statue of Forrest—a Confederate general and the first leader of the Ku Klux Klan—was only removed in 2017; the city had to sell the parks to a nonprofit called Memphis Greenspace in order to remove the statue without getting approval from the Tennessee House of Representatives. (In what some saw as retaliation, the House later cut $250,000 from Memphis’s bicentennial planning budget.) But T. O. Fuller State Park—named for Thomas O. Fuller, who fought for education and integration for Memphis’s black community during the early 20th century—has had the same name for more than 70 years.
As I watched, a few college students arrived to use the park’s empty basketball court. They began to form teams, dribbling and passing; one ball flew past me, as an invitation to join in. I explained I wasn’t any good athletically, but they remained just as welcoming. I made a group portrait and walked back to my car. I passed a sign on the way out that had one arrow pointing to Memphis and another pointing to the Chucalissa site. I later found out that the word chucalissa comes from Choctaw and means “abandoned house.” This park is anything but.
Tommy Kha is a photographer based between Brooklyn and his hometown of Memphis. Kha’s work often addresses queer identity and all things Memphis, including Elvis. He has a BFA from the Memphis College of Art and an MFA from Yale.
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