Most Hamilton County residents have driven Highway 58 and seen the signs for Booker T. Washington State Park. Many have memories of the park as a place for family gatherings since the Tennessee Valley Authority developed the park and then leased it to the Tennessee State Parks system for public use.
Older citizens may also recall that Booker T. Washington State Park was one of only two state parks open to Black Tennesseans before the park system's desegregation in 1962. Named for perhaps the most famous leader in the African-American community in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, in 2021, the park features hiking trails, boat docks, picnic areas and access to some of our area's favorite fishing spots, along with providing a rich history worth recalling.
The Jan. 11, 1939, edition of the Nashville Banner announced the planned construction of two state parks near Chattanooga: "One of the new park areas, designated as Harrison Bay State Park, is being developed for the exclusive use of white persons, and the other, Booker T. Washington State Park, for colored persons."
An announcement several months later noted that the park would occupy "a 350-acre area on the south shore of the lake midway between Harrison Bay and Chattanooga" with the intention that it would be "one of the most extensively developed Negro parks in the South." The planning process began, but unfortunately, Tennessee's focus on building parks shifted after the sudden attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 and the nation's entrance into World War II. Construction of the parks was not finalized until the end of the decade.
The Chattanooga Daily Times on July 2, 1950, headlined that Tennessee Gov. Gordon Browning had arrived in Chattanooga for the dedication of Booker T. Washington State Park. Browning had a unique involvement with the park; he had been governor when the park's creation was conceived in 1939. During the ensuing years, he had served as chancellor of the 8th Chancery District, been commissioned into the U. S. Army during World War II, served in the Allied occupational government in Germany as a civil affairs adviser on the staff of Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, and returned to Tennessee.
In 1948, Browning campaigned for a second term as governor with his strongest support coming from Congressman Estes Kefauver of Chattanooga and Congressman Al Gore Sr. of Carthage. In a resounding defeat of the Crump political machine, Browning was elected.
The governor and special guests arrived from Chattanooga aboard the Oneonta. Guests disembarked and the ceremony occurred near the water's edge. Browning was joined on stage by former Idaho Sen. James Pinckney Pope, then a director of the Tennessee Valley Authority. Acclaimed vocalist Paul Breckenridge, formerly with the Wings Over Jordan Choir and the Lucky Millinder orchestra, performed. Other speakers included C.P. Swan, Tennessee conservation commissioner, and S.C. Taylor, director of Tennessee State Parks. The ceremony concluded with TVA's official transfer of the land to Tennessee government and the announcement of a state grant of $160,000 for the construction of additional facilities at the park.
By 1954, the park was the site of frequent special gatherings for Black citizens. A June 3 Chattanooga Daily Times article invited the community to a "baptismal service" to be jointly hosted by nine Negro Baptist churches, with the Rev. M.H. Ribbins, Second Baptist Church, as the featured speaker. Other churches and pastors participating included "Rev. E.L. Hicks, New Home; Rev. E.P. Crutcher, Tucker; Rev. Robert Richard, Olivet; Rev. L. Brooks, Rock Island; Rev. William Robinson, Emanuel; Rev. J. H. Joster, Galilee; and Rev. J.D. Henderson, Mt. Calvary."
Within months, Camp Washington, the Chattanooga Girl Scout camp, opened under the leadership of Esther B. Means. The camp provided girls, ages 10 to 18, with activities including hiking, dramatics, swimming, nature studies, campfire time, orienteering and singing. Mrs. Ora Dodds served as program director and was joined by staff members Mrs. Lillie Jenkins, Miss Eva Patterson, Miss Gloria Shaw, Mrs. Mentola Kiser, Mrs. Louise Elizabeth Jones, Miss Velma Pryor, Mrs. Geneva Stegall, Mrs. Edna Wofford and Miss Mary Smith, with Dr. J.G. Todd as camp physician. Family camping expanded with canoeing, a new 125-by-50 foot pool, 16 solid oak cabins accommodating a total of 96 campers, and additional tent camping sites.
By 1957, the park was booked weeks in advance, providing family memories and outdoor experiences.
Linda Moss Mines, the Chattanooga-Hamilton County historian, serves on the board of the African-American Cemetery Preservation Fund and as regent, Chief John Ross Chapter, NSDAR.