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Rare segregated park heads toward new life

MURRAY — A once-segregated Kentucky state park is now the focus of a renovation effort aimed at preserving a piece of the state's past and possibly using it to educate in the future.

Friends of Cherokee State Park want to revive the area and are using $600,000 in funding from the Kentucky Department of Parks to work on a main lodge and dining room, a new driveway and beach work as a start.

Cherokee State Park was used by blacks, and nearby Kentucky Lake State Park (now Kenlake State Resort Park) was for whites only. Cherokee State Park opened its doors in 1951 and remained open through 1964.

Western Kentucky University professor and African-American research specialist Nancy Dawson told the Murray Ledger & Times that parks like Cherokee were rare.

"There were segregated city parks, but this was one of the few segregated state parks," Dawson told the newspaper.

Kentucky Department of Parks Commissioner Gerry van der Meer said the previous administration had set aside about $2 million for the project, but budget constraints forced that figure to be cut. Van der Meer said the current administration wants to be sure some money was set aside for the renovation.

"This is of national importance for the future. I can't wait to see this park alive and vibrant again," van der Meer said.

Dawson said the group wants to have focus groups in Western Kentucky, Louisville and Lexington centered on determining the mission of the revived park.

Officials say multiple objectives are being considered, including historic presentations on the significance and importance of Cherokee State Park and nature activities, including bird watching, hiking and fishing.

Members of the Friends of Cherokee State Park group said the park played a significant role in their childhood, and the group needs the help of the public to revive it.

"Right now we are trying to get the word out about the park," said George Sholar of Trigg County, chairman of the group.

Donnie Nicholson, whose uncle Lester G. Mimms was the first manager at the park, said Cherokee Park was a place where he and others came and felt free and accepted.

"We never encountered any disturbances of any kind. We would swim and picnic all day long," Nicholson said. "We were so excited to visit. These are memories that I will always have, and they will be in our hearts."