By the time the North Carolina General Assembly authorized the establishment of the state's first park in 1915 at Mount Mitchell, Jim Crow laws were firmly entrenched in the South. When Mount Mitchell State Park opened to the public the following year, the United States was exactly 20 years out from the Supreme Court ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson that upheld racial segregation and created the doctrine of "separate but equal."
The legislation to create Mount Mitchell State Park did not specify that it would be open to white Americans only. It was simply the unspoken standard. Local and state laws in North Carolina codified segregation in almost all social and public spaces, and across the United States, it was customary in practice. Indeed, when the National Park Service was created in 1916, President Woodrow Wilson had mandated segregation of the federal workspace only 3 years prior.
North Carolina was the first state in the former Confederate South to establish a state parks system, embracing the conservation movement that began in the previous century. But many environmentalists who championed the preservation of parkland held bigoted views — typical of the era, but nevertheless impactful when articulated by prominent figures such as President Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir. The naturalist John James Audubon was an enslaver and anti-abolitionist, and the bird paintings that brought the wonder of the natural world to a worldwide audience were in fact the products of specimen collection and information gathering by enslaved Black workers and Indigenous peoples. The budding state parks movement largely ignored the recreational needs of Black Americans. The irony, however, is that Black labor was so integral in establishing the first state parks.
In 1915, the Great Migration was still in its early years, and 90 percent of Black Americans still lived in the South, where they made up large swaths of farm, service, and industry labor forces. Discrimination was rampant, preventing Black workers from getting jobs outside of manual labor, and their wages were certainly low compared to their white counterparts.
Because state parks across the country are often located in rural areas, access to the parks relied first on railways, and then later roadways. Built mostly by Black hands, visits to state parks would not be possible without such labor.
Convict Leasing and Chain Gangs
In the South, a practice called convict leasing continued slavery's traditions of both unpaid labor and cruelty in the late 1800s and the first half of the 20th century. Chain gangs, made up of Black men and sometimes women and children, were sent to build railroads, which allowed Americans to travel before the dawn of automobiles. In North Carolina, the success of Mount Mitchell State Park in its first few years was largely through a passenger railroad that allowed visitors to travel to the peak from Black Mountain, which connected to lines to Asheville and large cities beyond.
When traveling by car did become popular beginning in the 1910s, prison labor also helped meet the demand of constructing new roads. Prisoners were "leased" to the state to build roads and highways. Though they no longer worked for private railroad companies, the outdoor manual labor, still sometimes done in chains, remained difficult. Escapes were common, and treatment was often inhumane. Prisoners were housed in temporary camps and transported to and from job sites in caged trucks. For a time, prisoner groups were segregated; however, prison population in the state remained predominantly Black, so most road workers were Black men. North Carolina continued to use chain gangs to build the state's highways and roads until the 1970s.
The Civilian Conservation Corps
In the 1930s, the Great Depression would deal a widespread blow to the economic fortunes of all Americans. President Franklin Roosevelt introduced the "New Deal" to help the nearly 25 percent of Americans unemployed, which in turn created one of the most consequential programs to the growth of parks and recreation: the Civilian Conservation Corps.
The CCC began in 1933 and has a lasting legacy as one of the New Deal's most popular programs. But that legacy is more fraught for the more than 200,000 Black Americans that participated. Though a provision in the bill dictated that "no discrimination shall be made on account of race, color, or creed" in employing the Corps, the subsequent enrollment failed in that regard. In the South, CCC camps were segregated, a policy that was made official for the rest of the camps in the U.S. by CCC National Director Robert Fechner only a year into the program.
Black applicants were initially denied altogether in some areas, and white residents of municipalities protested upon hearing that a Black camp was being set up nearby. In instances where they worked for white supervisors or with white workers — when there is not enough Black enrollment to warrant their own camp — many Black workers faced racist and hostile work environments. Placements limited to service jobs, like serving as mess hall cook, were common in some camps, and promotion to leadership roles were infrequent.
In North Carolina, there is limited information about Black workers at the state park CCC camps located at Fort Macon, Mount Mitchell, Morrow Mountain, Hanging Rock, and (then) Cape Hatteras state parks. The state had 16 all-Black camps during the CCC's existence, but none were at the aforementioned parks. N.C. Division of Parks and Recreation archives did not mention Black workers, except for one document regarding the reassignment of camps at state forests, which at the time, were managed jointly with state parks. However, a small blurb in a 1939 issue of The Danbury Reporter noted the arrival of local CCC workers at Hanging Rock, and that five of them were Black. This seems to indicate that at the very least, the camp at Hanging Rock was integrated by 1939. Notably, the DPR archives showed correspondence in which state parks leadership lamented at the low enrollment at the CCC camps in mid-1938. It is possible, then, that to bring the camps to full capacity, the state quietly integrated the state park camps.
The accomplishments of the CCC are well celebrated. The workforce allowed state parks to expand at an unprecedented rate. North Carolina's state parks were able to open or reopen in just a few years to a wide or wider array of recreation options (Cape Hatteras would later be transferred to the federal government to be managed as the Cape Hatteras National Seashore). Other states in the South took advantage of the program to build new parks or establish a state parks system. Across the country, the Corps would complete more than 750 projects in its 9-year existence.
The CCC also benefited Black Americans, especially in the South, in a rather unexpected way. With such feverish expansion and the growing popularity of state parks, the lack of opportunities for Black outdoor recreation became too evident to continue to ignore.
In September 1936, the National Park Service created a comprehensive work plan for CCC projects at North Carolina state parks. Included in each plan is something rarely seen in official state parks documents during that period: mention of race. For each of the five camps in state parks, the population within 50, 75, and 100 miles of each park was broken up into white and Black. In the attached letter, the NPS staffer noted that "a significant fact is apparent": there were no plans for Black recreation in any of these projects. He noted that in Cape Hatteras, for example, Black residents made up half of the population that lived within 100 miles of the park.
In consideration of Black recreational opportunities, North Carolina is again among the early adapters in the South. State parks leadership had discussed the issue earlier that year, in response to an inquiry about adding a project for the Corps workers at Morrow Mountain to build a recreational area for Black Boy Scouts near Charlotte. Though this did not materialize, it was clear by 1937 that there was interest within state parks leadership to build a state park for Black North Carolinians.
The impetus for establishing a state park usually comes from local interest: a group organizing to ask for one; a politician who saw an opportunity in his district; or a prominent citizen with resources like land or money. Land or money was a huge hurdle in the creation of a state park. The legislation to purchase land to create Mount Mitchell State Park was the first time — and for a while, the only time — that the state had provided funding to do so. Parkland were all donated to create Hanging Rock, Morrow Mountain, and (then) Cape Hatteras state parks. Fort Macon State Park was deeded from the federal government. No state funds were made permanently available to purchase parkland. A proposal to break that precedent for a state park for Black Americans would have likely faced opposition from some white politicians and citizens.
At the end of 1937 and in early 1938, state parks leadership was corresponding with Charles Clinton Spaulding, who at the time was the president of the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company in Durham. It was the largest Black-owned business in the country at the time. Spaulding was not only an influential figure in North Carolina, but the rest of the country, too. In 1936, he served as a trustee for Howard University in Washington, D.C., and 6 years later, he would be granted membership into the predominantly white New York Chamber of Commerce.
Spaulding had created what is now the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People, and they had expressed interest in establishing a state park. Parks leadership was likely hoping Spaulding's group would use their influence to raise funds to purchase land. The committee would end up focusing their efforts to create city parks in Durham instead, but their efforts were one of the many seeds planted early in statewide Black recreation.
The discussion would pick up only a few months later, when William J. Trent, Jr., a member of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's "Black Cabinet," made similar inquiries about providing a means for Black recreation in North Carolina. Trent was officially an advisor to U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Harold Ickes and would be the driving force in his Civil Rights-minded boss' efforts to desegregate national parks.
At the time of Trent's correspondence in 1938, the National Park Service was also in the midst of a recreational survey of all state parks systems. The goal of the survey was to catalogue presently available parks and recreation areas across the country. But for the Southern states, the surveys were written with special concern regarding opportunities for Black recreation, especially in rural areas. The final report would be published in 1941 as the curiously named A Study of the Park and Recreation Problem in the United States.
Stymied by the lack of state funds to purchase a new state park, Trent proposed to instead add facilities to North Carolina's existing parks specifically for Black visitors. Trent's proposal was ironic given that he and Secretary Ickes were then amid a battle to integrate the National Park Service, but Black recreational opportunities in the South were in dire straits. Though the goal of the state parks movement was to have a state park within 50 miles of every American, that certainly did not include Black Americans who were unable to access any state park in a Southern state before 1938.
There were no correspondences in the DPR archive in response to Trent's proposal. As mentioned in the previous section, North Carolina's state park CCC camps were struggling with enrollment at this point, so it was unlikely they would be able to add construction of Black facilities when they were already behind on existing projects. Trent's idea would eventually come into play in just a few years, but in the meantime, a different avenue has already been developing for state parks leadership: another New Deal program called the Resettlement Administration.
In 1911, shortly before the state parks system was created, the N.C. General Assembly passed a law that any lake in Bladen, Columbus, and Cumberland county of 500 acres or more is now owned by the state, thereby creating "state lakes." The definition of a state lake expanded in 1929 to instead set the area minimum at 50 acres, which then designated Jones Lake and Salters Lake, among others, as state lakes. Also in 1929, the state created another unit called "state forests," and the legislation directed the state to "plan to retain, or acquire by gift or purchase, certain lands" to include area surrounding a state lake.
Though North Carolina was relatively quick to embrace the enhancement of Black recreational opportunities, the impetus for what would become the state's first area for Black recreation was clearly the federal government, where attitudes about race had changed since President Woodrow Wilson was in office.
When Franklin Delano Roosevelt was sworn in as the first Democrat since Wilson in 1933, his ascendancy would begin a realignment of party politics. White Southern Democrats were very much still in power during the FDR years; in fact, Roosevelt's civil rights legacy is complicated by the concessions he had to make for that constituency to support his New Deal agenda. But Roosevelt was surrounded by supporters of civil rights. Eleanor Roosevelt joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1934 and helped champion an anti-lynching campaign. She also worked with the "Black Cabinet" to help ensure that Black Americans were not left out of the New Deal. And Secretary Ickes and Labor Secretary Frances Perkins, heads of two agencies that played a huge role in the New Deal, were progressive minded, including in racial issues. At the White House and around the country, a watershed moment was taking place as Black Americans began using political power to challenge the status quo.
Meanwhile, New Deal programs were being enacted to help a particular group hit hard by the Great Depression: farmers. Between falling crop prices since the end of World War I, a Dust Bowl in the Great Plains, and a drought in the South, farmers across the country were struggling and needed relief. In 1935, the Resettlement Administration was created, primarily to provide small loans for tenant farmers to relocate their families from rural areas to suburban cities.
The RA also had a program for rural rehabilitation and for land utilization. The latter's goal was to acquire land deemed unsuitable for farming and transform it for better uses, such as wildlife habitat, protected forest, or recreation area. By mid-1936, the RA had acquired more than 1.7 million acres of submarginal farmland and was in the process of acquiring almost 9 million more acres.
That the RA set its sights on Jones Lake was not coincidence. In 1934, there were discussions that the federal government was creating another New Deal program that would help states establish state forests. North Carolina's state forester, who was also managing state parks at the time, identified nine areas as great locations for a state forest; one of them was 80,000 acres of land in Bladen County, surrounding Jones, Salters, and Singletary state lakes. Those plans were shifted to the RA's purview the following year when it was created, and in 1935, the RA secured its first 178 acres of land, located on the west side of Salters Lake. The RA, though, added another aspect to the project: creating a recreation area specifically for Black Americans at Jones Lake.
But what came to be known as the Bladen County Project quickly hit a snag due to disputes with landowners, and the plans stalled for a few years. At the same time, the RA's primary purpose to relocate rural farmers was becoming unpopular in Congress, as landowners exerted their influence after they saw their profits diminish when their sharecroppers were provided better opportunities. By the beginning of 1937, the RA was reorganized into the Department of Agriculture and renamed the Farm Security Administration.
The federal government thankfully pressed on with the Bladen County Project, although the governing agency would yet again switch from the FSA to the Soil Conservation Service. To help secure the remaining land for the state forest and Black recreation area, the United States asked the state of North Carolina to step in to help secure 630 acres of land through condemnation, or eminent domain. The General Assembly passed Senate Bill 236 in 1937, which appropriated $10,000 for the purchase of these lands. The acreage was sold to the federal government, but at a lower rate, so the state ultimately spent almost $2,500 to secure the land for the project.
Notably, it seemed that the N.C. Department of Conservation and Development, the overarching department over state parks, did not want to publicly acknowledge that the state did spend some money to establish the Jones Lake recreation area. In subsequent documents, it was frequently noted that the state did not have any expenditures towards the recreation area's development. It could be argued that the money the state spent was essentially zeroed out, when it acquired the land from the federal government, but it is evident that there was an effort to minimize the state's contributions to the development of this Black recreation area. To wit: Senate Bill 236 did not mention the plans to build a Black recreation area at Jones Lake, even though this has been widely acknowledged by both the federal government and state officials since 1935.
Regardless, with this major hurdle quietly cleared, North Carolina was set to make history. On July 1, 1939, the Jones Lake Recreational Area opened to much fanfare. It offered a bathhouse, pier, boathouse, picnic shelters, and restrooms. An estimated 22,000 visitors came from opening day to when its closed its first season in September 17.
William E. O'Brien's book, Landscapes of Exclusion: State Parks and Jim Crow in the American South, published in 2015 by the Library of American Landscape History, is the first of its kind to provide a general discussion of segregated state parks.
O'Brien also wrote an article for the Geographical Review in 2012 on the same topic.
In 2009, Rebecca Jones, a student at Appalachian State University, published "Historic Resource Study: African Americans and the Blue Ridge Parkway," which was commissioned by the BRP. Though the Parkway itself is managed by the National Park Service, many N.C. state parks are located along it. Mount Jefferson State Natural Area, for instance, is mentioned on pages 21 to 22: "The mountain is believed to have been named 'Negro Mountain' because runaway slaves would hide there on their way north."
The N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources manages the N.C. Digital Collections website, a partnership between the State Archives of North Carolina and the State Library of North Carolina. The website has thousands of primary source documents, including written correspondences with state parks staff in the early 20th century and digitized copies of state government reports. Photos from the DPR Archive used in this page can also be accessed from that site.
DigitalNC is a project of the North Carolina Digital Heritage Center, NC DNCR, and UNC-Chapel Hill Libraries. They offer digitized versions of more than 500,000 issues of North Carolina newspapers. All screenshots of newspaper clippings on this page are from their collection. Links to the specific issues are included above.
During the late 1930s, the National Park Service conducted a nationwide recreational study to assess existing park facilities and recommend areas of improvement. The findings of the study was published in 1941 as A Study of the Park and Recreation Problem of the United States, and it can be accessed online on the NPS website. An overview of North Carolina's proposed plan is available here.
Note: This page is a work in progress, and we will be adding information about Jones Lake, Reedy Creek, and William B. Umstead (then Reedy Creek) state parks, as well as how the state parks system was integrated in the late 1960s. In the meantime, this slideshow provides a glimpse of snapshots from that time.