By Joan Vannorsdall
Vannorsdall ia a member of the Alleghany County Board of Supervisors. This first appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
After five months of waiting, wondering, wishing it weren’t so, the McGuireWoods law firm report on Gov. Ralph Northam’s Eastern Virginia Medical School 1984 yearbook photo is complete. Was it or wasn’t it Northam in blackface or Ku Klux Klan garb? No one — even Northam himself — seems to remember.
Memory is a slippery cog in the wheel of humanity, often ungeared by time and determined denial. Be that as it may in the case of the governor and the racist photo, here is something he can do in honor of the recent Memorial Day holiday to honor African Americans across Virginia.
He can come visit and then provide funding for the restoration of the only outdoor recreation area that blacks in Virginia were allowed to use during the Jim Crow era.
He can save Green Pastures and its significant African American legacy. He can memorialize those who pushed for an outdoor recreation area for African Americans. He can help us all remember.
Tucked in a quiet corner of Alleghany County, the park was built from 1938 to 1940 by the Civilian Conservation Corps in response to requests from the Clifton Forge chapter of the NAACP for a recreation and swimming area for African Americans. On summer weekends, hundreds gathered at Green Pastures for socializing, swimming, ball games, shared picnics, hiking and dreaming. African American churches held baptisms in the lake. Busloads of people from as far away as Washington, D.C., and the Eastern Shore came to this place.
From 1940 to 1949, Green Pastures was the only recreation area in Virginia and West Virginia designated for African Americans. Last year, the park was named by Preservation Virginia as one of Virginia’s Most Endangered Historic Places.
Part of the George Washington National Forest, the park (now called Longdale Recreation Area) is overseen by the financially strapped National Forest Service. This year, the gate to Green Pastures is locked; so are the restrooms and the bathhouse. The place is maintained by volunteers — the hand-hewn picnic pavilion and bathhouse maintenance, mowing, trail clearing and trash removal happen only because people care enough to do it.
Memorial Day is traditionally known as a day of remembrance for those who lost their lives in war. Less known is that the first Memorial Day celebration was held shortly after the Civil War ended. A parade of 10,000 freed people and white missionaries and teachers led by 3,000 black school children carrying flowers to decorate the graves of Union soldiers who had died at the horrific Charleston, S.C., outdoor prison on the grounds of the city’s Washington Race Course and Jockey Club.
It is this early iteration of Memorial Day that Northam could honor by paying tribute to another group of African Americans who requested their place in the natural world at Green Pastures.
Here in Alleghany County, people remember what Green Pastures offered them. In a recently published oral history of the park, “Green Pastures at Longdale: Family, Memory, Renewal,” Clifton Forge resident Greg Key recalled the park: “It was like a big family reunion out there. It was a place you could go and always see a friend. I always felt safe there.”
The Rev. Rosyln Clark Thomas is the niece of the Rev. Hugo Austin, the Baptist minister who was a driving force behind getting the Forest Service to begin construction on Green Pastures. “They named the park Green Pastures, which is biblical, from Psalm 23 … the Lord gave us a place to rest. The park is still in our hearts, and I would love to see it restored to its glory days,” Thomas said.
In 1964, the park was renamed Longdale Recreation Area by the National Forest Service, in an effort to remove the memory of segregation. Those who used the park during and shortly after the segregation era want the original name to be restored. “When you change a name, you lose an identity. … I’d love to see it reopened under the name Green Pastures and be a park for all the people. It won’t be Disney World, but it’ll be somewhere to go for people to enjoy the quietness, the beauty of it,” said retired teacher Ettrula Moore.
We take as Northam’s truth his avowed commitment to bridge the racial divide in Virginia in this time of separation and distrust. We ask him to come to Green Pastures and witness this unique and endangered piece of Virginia African American history. Stand by the lake. Share a picnic in the hand-hewn picnic shelter. Walk with us at Green Pastures.
Help us remember.