Tom Eblen

Tom Eblen: Douglass Park’s creation 100 years ago followed years of struggle

Girls take swimming lessons at the Douglass Park pool in July 1944. In the center, demonstrating strokes, were, left to right, life guard A.D. Burroughs, head instructor Lucian P. Garrett, life guard Morrison Jenkins and assistant instructor Leonard Mills Jr. For many years, the Lexington Leader sponsored free swimming lessons at Douglass pool for blacks and Joyland Park for whites.
Girls take swimming lessons at the Douglass Park pool in July 1944. In the center, demonstrating strokes, were, left to right, life guard A.D. Burroughs, head instructor Lucian P. Garrett, life guard Morrison Jenkins and assistant instructor Leonard Mills Jr. For many years, the Lexington Leader sponsored free swimming lessons at Douglass pool for blacks and Joyland Park for whites. Herald-Leader Archive Photo

Douglass Park turns 100 this year, and city officials are determined to not only celebrate Lexington’s first public park for the black community, but to reclaim it from violence and crime.

“We want to help change some of the negative perceptions that surround Douglass Park,” said James Brown, the First District Urban County Council member who is organizing a city centennial commission along with the Georgetown Street Neighborhood Association.

During the park’s annual Dirt Bowl basketball tournament last June 21, a shooting injured several people, one of whom died several days later, and prompted officials to move the games to Dunbar Community Center.

Brown said the commission will plan a series of events and activities this year to mark the centennial of the 27-acre park named for pioneering civil rights leader Frederick Douglass. Park improvements have been underway, including a cleanup and tree-planting last October. There are plans for a new playground.

“The more positive activities we have in the park, it will replace the negative activities,” Brown said. “The history of the park and what it means to the community should be celebrated.”

Indeed. Douglass Park was a major social center for Central Kentucky’s black community before parks were desegregated in 1956. Its creation in 1916 showed how hard black people had to work to secure public facilities in that era — and how much they could achieve once they got started.

Lexington had several public parks by the early 1900s, including Gratz Park and Woodland Park, but blacks weren’t allowed.

When city officials in 1912 started discussing the purchase of former Mayor Henry T. Duncan’s historic estate at North Limestone and Fifth Street to create another white park, Lexington’s black population pushed back.

That prompted city officials to issue $50,000 in bonds — half to buy and improve Duncan Park and half to create at least two parks for black people. Duncan Park was purchased in 1913, but it would take two more years of prodding from black leaders before officials got around to buying land for a black park.

The history of the park and what it means to the community should be celebrated.

James Brown, First District councilman

After considering several sites, the city paid $20,000 for 43 acres on Georgetown Street near the Colored Orphan’s Home (now the Robert H. Williams Cultural Center) and the Chandler Normal School for blacks. Half the property was to be sold off as building lots to pay for park improvements.

When Douglass Park finally opened on July 4, 1916, it was quite a celebration, with about 5,000 people in attendance, according to the next day’s Lexington Herald.

The day began with a parade that started at a black fraternal hall on North Limestone, went down Main Street and out Georgetown Street to the park. The parade was led by a “platoon of police” and a car with Mayor James C. Rogers and city commissioners. They were followed by a band, a fife and drum corps, marching black fraternal organizations and dozens of automobiles, carriages and buggies.

Douglass Park had the city’s only recreational facilities open to blacks, including a baseball field, tennis and volleyball courts. Until the Douglass Park pool was built, black children swam in a pond on Seventh Street or an old rock quarry, according to park patrons interviewed for a documentary film that Boyd Shearer made in 2001, At Leisure’s Edge: A Journey Through Kentucky’s Historic Black Parks.

The people Shearer interviewed recalled Sunday afternoon band concerts; Easter egg hunts with a prize golden egg; style and talent shows; and a big July Fourth celebration.

It would be another 14 years before city officials made good on the promise of a second black park. In 1930, they bought just under three acres on East Third Street and later built the Charles Young Center, Lexington’s first black community center.

Eight black school and neighborhood playgrounds also were built before desegregation. Lexington’s black parks were still no match for the white ones by the 1950s, but they were considered better than in most Southern cities, including Atlanta.

After desegregation, Douglass Park declined as blacks frequented other city parks. But Douglass maintained its place in the community, in part because Herb Washington created the Dirt Bowl tournament there in the early 1970s. Over the years, it became a nationally famous event.

Brown said that among his goals for the Douglass Park celebration this summer is returning the Dirt Bowl to its historic home.

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