Bartow Carver Park’s historical significance takes center stage

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Inviting area residents to travel “back to the beach,” Keep Bartow Beautiful’s staff will deliver the presentation “Remembering George Washington Carver State Park” on Thursday. Starting at 7 p.m., the lecture will take place at the Bartow History Museum, 4 E. Church St. in Cartersville.“[Keep Bartow Beautiful Programs Director] Missy Phillips and I ... will be sharing a brief history of the park, as well as our plans to collect more information on the park through our Bartow Carver Park Memories Day on Saturday, Feb. 27, from 10 a.m. till 2 p.m. at the park itself, and our plans for the future, once we collect much more of that information,” said Sheri Henshaw, executive director for Keep Bartow Beautiful. “We hope that those in attendance will see our vision as both important and worthwhile, and join with us in this effort to tell the story of the park through the history that was made there. This is the first of many steps that we hope to make over the next five years.”Opened in the early 1950s under the name George Washington Carver State Park, the site was spearheaded by John Atkinson. Located at 3900 Bartow Carver Road in Acworth, Bartow Carver Park currently is operated by the Bartow County Parks and Recreation Department. While the venue already was available for groups or individuals to rent, the park’s beach was reopened to the public for day use in 2014.According to a news release from the Bartow History Museum, “George Washington Carver State Park was established in the 1950’s as a recreational area for local African American families. It drew people from as far away as nearby states and was visited by famous people such as Ray Charles and Little Richard, who performed in the park. In addition, The St. John’s Ski Bees, an African American ski club, entertained visitors each summer. Friends and families enjoyed the park and its amenities including ... Mrs. Coretta Scott King’s family who frequented the property.”At the request of Bartow County Commissioner Steve Taylor to offer recycling at the county’s parks, Henshaw started looking into the historical significance of Bartow Carver Park about three years ago.“The history of Bartow Carver Park just begged to be told, and preserved, so that people could fully appreciate the site,” Henshaw said. “At the same time that we were studying the parks, Commissioner Taylor wanted to make them more accessible to the public. Georgia’s Supreme Court Justice and Bartow County native Robert Benham wanted to revisit Bartow Carver Park, too, and bring all his friends, along with their memories. As a 10-year-old boy who grew up at Bartow Carver with his dad — the superintendent — overseeing the park’s operations and management, he had lots of memories, and he knew he was not the only one.“He ran into Commissioner Taylor, who put Benham into contact with me, and the rest, as we hope, is history. All these ideas came together at the same time, which for me is the universe’s ‘green light’ to go forward with a big idea, partly mine, partly Justice Benham’s and partly Commissioner Taylor’s. In this case, it was finding the right ways to reveal the many layers of story that had been buried at Bartow Carver Park. For our program [at the Bartow History Museum], we plan to share what little we already knew, what we have learned since we started this project, and what we hope to add, going forward from Feb. 27. We have been busy, that’s for sure.”Along with Keep Bartow Beautiful, Bartow Carver Park Memories Day will be presented by Bartow County Parks and Recreation, Bartow History Museum, Etowah Valley Historical Society and Noble Hill-Wheeler Memorial Center.“The Bartow Carver Park Memories Day was conceived with a dual purpose,” Henshaw said. “One was to recreate the story of John Atkinson, the Tuskegee Airman who fought against prejudice to successfully establish the first ‘Negro’ State Park in Georgia. Atkinson and his family are credited with the early development of the park’s facilities, even going so far as to haul in hundreds of tons of sand to the lakeshore to create a proper sandy beach along the once muddy and rocky shoreline for the enjoyment of visitors. At least 30 members of the Atkinson family will be attending Bartow Carver Park day from all over Georgia, and we are very excited to meet them and share the day’s activities with them. Justice Benham has also contacted local churches as well as black churches in the Atlanta area and around the Southeast that frequented the site in the park’s heyday, inviting them to return to the site, and bring any artifacts, memorabilia and memories they could share.“Three different local groups with expertise in the collection of historical data were recruited to help us with this project, and I am truly grateful they all answered my calls for help. The Bartow History [Museum] will be overseeing the archiving of documents, old photos, any ephemera, or other items from the era. They will scan and copy all items that are brought in, in order to inventory and catalog them for later use. The owners will be able to keep their items, as we have no proper space for donations at present. They will also provide a photographer for the day. Etowah Valley Historical Society is donating monies for their Oral History Project to videotape park visitors recalling their favorite park memory in a brief ‘5 minutes or less’ taping session. We hope to get a lot of folks on film that day. And Noble Hill-Wheeler Memorial [Center], an African-American history museum housed in a historic restored Rosenwald School for blacks established in Cassville during the post-Civil War era, is bringing their expertise to the event, as well. All these groups are coming together on a local level to welcome those from all over the Southeast who will be journeying ‘back to the beach.’ Since it was the only beach available to them, the African-American community identified it simply as ‘The Beach’ and those that visited Carver Park still do, to this day, according to Benham. The second purpose was to increase access to communities that had been without full access in recent history, by providing targeted community programming on select weekends, and through increased community outreach.”Citing the venue’s “rich history,” BHM Director Trey Gaines is looking forward to helping this project come to fruition.“The Bartow History Museum will assist in the creation of interpretive elements at Bartow Carver Park, perhaps in the form of panels, signs or exhibits informing visitors about the rich history of the park,” Gaines said. “Through this event we encourage participants to bring their photographs, documents, objects and other memorabilia that they would like to share with others. Bartow History Museum staff and volunteers will be on hand to document memories, photograph objects or scan photographs. Museum staff will also be available to answer questions of those wishing to donate items to the project.“As the county history museum, we work every day to collect, preserve and make available all aspects of Bartow County’s history. We are excited to be a part of this project to preserve the memories of this historic park and beach that once played an important role in the lives of many African-American families.”Along with the archival efforts, Henshaw said Bartow Carver Park Memories Day will feature numerous family-friendly offerings.“In addition to the archive activities, the day will have a retro vibe, and is open to all that day who wish to visit the park,” Henshaw said. “Red Top State Park will set up a camping display and [make] S’mores over campfires. Red Top’s AmeriCorps team will be pulling from their Junior Naturalist Program materials for the day, and both kids and adults alike should enjoy it. Also, Allatoona’s Corps of Engineers staff will be on hand to provide information on the lake and education on water safety, as well as their new Park Pass program for America’s youth. Bartow Parks and Recreation staff will, if weather permits, have a hay ride around the site, and the grounds, outdoor tables and picnic shelters will be open for those bringing a basket of goodies to enjoy the day.“Music will be provided by Ahmad Hall, nominee [for] Best New Artist [with] Ahmad Hall and Friends, for the Steeple Awards — gospel music’s newest awards show taking place in Atlanta this March. Hall will be spinning some old records from the era to recall the many famous performers that appeared at the park, such as Little Richard, Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder. A wiener roast will be hosted by Keep Bartow Beautiful and Bartow Parks and Recreation, with Noble Hill providing drinks and Etowah Valley Historical Society members joining them all to help host and serve. J.B. Tate is scheduled to have his autographed books on Bartow County history on hand for purchase. The books contain a chapter on local African-American history written by Justice Benham, and includes pages on Bartow Carver Park and its unique position in Georgia’s Civil Rights history.”Looking forward, Bartow Carver Park also will host a pair of community programming weekends in May and September.“The ultimate purpose of Bartow Carver Memories Day is to create interpretive panels for the park that will serve to educate visitors and tourists about the history of the site, as well as create more community programming and possible park enhancements for 2016 and beyond,” Henshaw said. “Two more weekends have been booked for more community programming — May 7 and 8, Mother’s Day weekend, and Sept. 24-25. Whether or not we create the panels, how many we create and how we will fund them will depend on the response we get [next] weekend. We need more photos, for sure, and other items. For instance, we know that some old water skis have been secured that were used here by the St. John’s, Florida, Ski Bees, an African-American competitive trick ski team that had Bartow Carver as their summer home. We do not have any photos or posters of the performers, who created a pyramid of performers on water skis.“Lifeguards who were the first blacks trained and certified in Georgia will be on hand, and I hope they bring photos with them, or even an old bathing suit or safety float. A lifeguard whistle would be nice to see and to photograph. Folks are encouraged to bring old church bulletins mentioning the park, picnic items, such as beach quilts and baskets, archery equipment, Girl or Boy Scout items, old records — just anything memorable from their personal collections that would help us tell the story of the park. Really, there are hundreds of stories tied to that site, and I can’t wait to hear them. We hope these grandparents will bring their children and their grandchildren, and share in a day of fun and happy memories.”For more information about Henshaw’s BHM presentation on Thursday, visit http://bartowhistorymuseum.org or call 770-382-3818. Free to BHM members, the evening lecture is included in the cost of admission for nonmembers.To obtain further details about Bartow Carver Park Memories Day, contact Keep Bartow Beautiful at 770-387-5167.