Now a Georgia Supreme Court justice, the Cartersville resident still fondly remembers the years he spent growing up at the once segregated property. Benham’s father, Clarence, served as its second superintendent during the late 1950s to early ’60s, when the venue originally was named George Washington Carver Park.
“We lived at the park, and it consisted of the beach, a boat dock [and] buoys to anchor the boats. It had a playground, three picnic areas that probably had anywhere from 25 to 50 concrete tables,” Benham said. “… I was the youngest of three brothers, and I was there from the time I was 8 or 9 until I was 14 or 15.
“I felt like I was Huckleberry Finn because all of my brothers and I had boats and my daddy had a big boat, a cabin cruiser, that we owned. So I would go out each day during the summer and fish and go through the woods. … We had just a wonderful time.”
Along with serving as his boyhood playground, the venue also introduced him to many famous entertainers and civil rights leaders.
“Dr. Martin Luther King came, his daddy — Daddy King — came because they were connected with the Ebenezer Baptist Church. … People would could from as far away as south Georgia because, at that time, that was the only state park for African-Americans. People would also come from Chattanooga to the park in Cartersville and some would come from Alabama,” Benham said. “It was not unusual on a Sunday morning for there to be 20 to 30 buses in the parking area.
“… [George Washington Carver Park] was the only place that you could see a black performing ski team. The ski team was called the St. John’s Ski Bees. This group originated in Jacksonville, Fla., and they would come up and stay a good part of the summer providing entertainment ski shows. … My brothers and I were part of the St. John’s ski team. My brother came back after his service in the military and married one of the young ladies on the ski team and they now live in Jacksonville, Fla.”
Opened in 1950, George Washington Carver Park was spearheaded by John Atkinson, who Benham said “carved out” the beach and constructed the first pavilion.
“[George Washington Carver Park opened] as the first Georgia state park specifically for African-Americans and it is the only Georgia state park that was ever named after an African-American and that was George Washington Carver,” said Marian Coleman, curator of Noble Hill-Wheeler Memorial Center, a cultural museum in Cassville that reveals what life and education was like for black residents during the early to mid-1900s. “The owner then was Mr. John Loyd Atkinson, who was a former Tuskegee Airman. After returning to Atlanta after World War II, Atkinson leased [345 acres of] land from the Corps of Engineers at Allatoona Lake. He intended to open a private resort for African-Americans but could not get a license from Bartow County to operate it as such. So he then persuaded Gov. Herman Talmadge to assume his lease and make the property the first state park for African-Americans. Atkinson was the first superintendent of the park and also he was the first black superintendent of the parks in Georgia.
“Music legends like Ray Charles and Little Richard performed at George Washington [Carver] Park. It was here that Andrew Young and his family learned to water ski, and Coretta Scott King and her family enjoyed many weekend [outings] with Ebenezer Baptist Church.”
Coleman continued, “… In 1962, the Atlanta Girl Scout Council leased portions of the park as an outdoor activity area reserved for African-American members of the Girl Scouts. George Washington Carver Park remained under the Department of Natural Resources through desegregation, and in 1970, Georgia’s budget cuts caused it to be closed. But an agreement between the state and Bartow County saved portions of the park when the county was allowed to take over the lease and some of the park’s acreage.”
Located at 3900 Bartow Carver Road in Acworth, Bartow Carver Park currently is operated by the Bartow County Parks and Recreation Department. Along with the beach, the venue features a boat ramp, playground, about 20 picnic tables and an indoor facility that can accommodate 150 people. While the venue has been available for groups or individuals to rent, in May the park’s beach was open to the public for day use. The beach is accessible Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Sunday from 1 to 6 p.m. As summer draws to a close, its hours of operation will be scaled back to weekends.
“As far as the response, it’s been slow. It’s been very slow,” said Greg Hight, director of the Bartow County Parks and Recreation Department. “... Carver is a smaller beach too, probably between 100 and 150 feet [of shoreline]. It sits back in a remote place. There’s not a whole lot of traffic back in that area. It is the back of Bartow Carver Road.
“… We always want more people to use [the park] and take advantage of anything we’ve got in our facilities. … [We opened the beach] to give more recreation opportunities to the people at that end of the county,” he said, adding admission to the beach is a $4 parking fee per vehicle, with a maximum of eight people.
Due to the park’s unique setting and history, Benham believes opening the beach to the public will help bolster the property’s attendance.
“It will be a wonderful opportunity [for Bartow County] because it has the most picturesque setting on the lake,” Benham said. “… [In the past], it was a place where people felt free away from the shackles of segregation. It’s going to prosper [now that] it’s open to the public.
“As much as Red Top is probably one of the most used state parks in the state, I think Carver Park will rival Red Top. Although it doesn’t have the amount of acreage Red Top has, but I think once … [people know the beach is open] they will see a need to build cabins and things of that nature because it will be well-attended [since] it is prominently situated and it has a rich history.”
For more information about Bartow Carver Park, call Bartow County Parks and Recreation Department at 770-387-5149.