Aurora, KY – Kentucky's segregated park system became official in 1942 when Paducah Congressman Henry Ward sponsored a bill mandating a "white" park commission in every city to oversee whites-only parks and a "colored" commission to oversee all blacks-only parks. Blacks and whites had always been segregated, but Ward's legislation gave black communities control over their own recreation and leisure activities. Segregated parks developed unique atmospheres all over the Commonwealth. Angela Hatton tells the story of one of this region's important parks.
In 1949 Cherokee State Park opened near Aurora, Kentucky as a "colored only" holiday spot on the edge of Kentucky Lake. It was the Commonwealth's only state-funded park solely for African-Americans. Just a few minutes away, bordering on a different part of the same lake, was the "whites only" Kenlake State Park. A 1952 Kentucky State Highway map listed Cherokee as the "finest colored vacation site in the South."
"People came here from St. Louis, Chicago, Memphis, Alabama, even down in Birmingham, Alabama. Just oodles of them came in from St. Louis. This was their vacation, yeah."
That's Jacob White of Hopkinsville. White was park manager from 1960 - 1963. Between 1949 and the mid-60's Cherokee employed a full-time staff to do everything from clean the rental cottages to run the concession stands. James Stubblefield worked as a lifeguard at the park.
"This place attracted people from miles and miles around. There was people come from as far away as New York. And they said it was really great because even up in that area there was nowhere to go like this I guess there was a place but it was integrated and they wanted a place where they could more or less feel at home, with their own kind."
For some people Cherokee was a refuge. Former Paducah firefighter and active retiree Gladman Humbles says he remembers the spot for the relaxation it brought to the end of a busy week.
"When you had to go to a low-paying job, working long hours probably, no overtime was available in those days. You had a family to take care of and it was a struggle just to make ends meet. And you can imagine back then what a treat it would be to take a drive up to the park."
In 1963 Governor Bert Combs signed an executive order eliminating segregation in public places. As a result Cherokee Park closed down and most of the rental cottages were either floated over or taken by truck to Kenlake State Park. For many years, Cherokee's buildings and recreation areas remained closed to the public.
In the past year, a committee of regional leaders and residents has started a campaign to restore Cherokee as a historic site.
"Even though it's winter and the green is not around except the pines and the evergreen, it is an absolutely beautiful area." ShirleyJohnsonClip1
Shirley Johnson is the director of the Twilight Cabaret Theatre Company and a member of the Cherokee State Park Restoration Committee.
"The fact that there hasn't been recently any publicity. People do not know that it even exists. People who have moved in the area don't have a clue."
Johnson gives a tour of the park as it is now. The manager's house sits empty near the park's entrance; the committee hopes to turn it into a museum. The T-shaped lodge still has a sound structure, but the windows are covered in dust and parts of the insulation peak out from behind the plaster walls. Two cottages remain near the water's edge and a concrete pad overlooks a path leading down to the former beach area.
What does the future hold for Cherokee Park? The Restoration Committee envisions this area coming back to life. Johnson says, through tough lobbying efforts lawmakers have provided more than 600,000-dollars in funding.
"I think that people involved at the state level realized how vital this is and what a really important thing this is that we're trying to do. An important project; a necessary project."
This summer Johnson hopes to highlight Cherokee's history with a dramatic presentation during the August the 8th Emancipation Celebration.
"And of course what I really want are people who either as children or maybe even up in years came to this park because this was the only park they had."
This month the committee will accept bids for the lodge project, but Johnson admits progress is slow going on the restoration. Members must seek grants or personal donations, gather information, and approve designs and plans. They did make one big stride forward recently. In January, officials accepted Cherokee State Park's application to the national registry of historic places. The park's place in black history has finally been noticed.
Note: A portion the audio for this story was provided courtesy of Kentucky Educational Television.