BLUE RIDGE PARKWAY — When a high school teacher recommended Ajena Cason Jones apply to be a park ranger for the Blue Ridge Parkway, Rogers said, “Sure, I’d love to work on the Parkway. Where’s the Parkway?”
Growing up right alongside the Blue Ridge Parkway as an African American woman shaped Rogers’ life, an experience she shared in the Blue Ridge Conservancy’s June 15 presentation “Black and Blue: African Americans on the Blue Ridge Parkway,” discussing the history of African Americans and their relationships with the Parkway.
Rogers was joined by Dr. Carmen Foster, a public historian with expertise in organization leadership and facilitation as a consultant and coach for senior executives as well as Rebecca Branson Jones, a documentary filmmaker who studied the history of African Americans on the Blue Ridge Parkway while receiving her master’s degree from Appalachian State University. The panel was moderated by Dale Caveny, a board of trustees member for the Blue Ridge Conservancy.
Rogers said that when she was young her family found that, “the mountains were comforting to us.” She said that after church, her family spent Sunday afternoons at Mill Mountain, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge, and that they would, “hike through the trails, or we’d go up north of the Roanoke Mountain and go down off by the way of the Roanoke River, and walk along in there just be surrounded by all the trees.” Growing up in Roanoke, Va., Rogers said that her kindergarten class was the first to go through all 12 years of schooling in a fully integrated system.
Despite growing up so close to the nature of the Blue Ridge, Rogers said that she never saw a park ranger until she went for her job interview to be a park ranger in 1984. Rogers said that she thinks park rangers never saw her and her family because her family was never in the area the rangers would have been.
Historically, African Americans have been excluded from the Parkway and its plans, as Jones stated in her history of the development of the Blue Ridge Parkway citing a 1942 statistic that less than one half of one percent of Parkway visitors were African American. This caused ripple effects for decades, Jones said, as African American visitors were chronically undercounted and not considered in the Parkway’s’ planning.
Situating the conversation in the historical context of the creation of the Blue Ridge Parkway, Jones presented an updated version of the research she conducted as a graduate student at Appalachian State University in 2009.
“First, I’d like to start by acknowledging colonization is at the root of racism. National parks were created by violently displacing and breaking treaties with indigenous people,” Jones said. “The Blue Ridge Parkway sits on the unceded lands of the Cherokee, Monacan and Catawba people, and we acknowledge them as the past, present and future caretakers of this land.”
Jones presented a summary of the leaders involved in the foundation and creation of the Blue Ridge Parkway, including President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Secretary of Interior Harold Ickes and landscape architect Stanley Abbott. However, she also highlighted leaders of the early Blue Ridge Parkway whom she contended held explicitly racist values, such as former Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels whom Jones noted was a white supremacist, segregationist and ultimately one of the leaders of the Wilmington Race Massacre in 1898 in which “2,000 white supremacists overthrew the local biracial government in Wilmington, N.C., resulting in the murder of hundreds of Black people and the destruction of Black businesses,” said Jones.
“When talking about African Americans and their use of the Parkway, we have to talk about the risks of driving while Black,” Jones continued, stating that the “myth of the open road” was made for white people.
Foster spoke of her experiences as a child traveling on the parkway with her family. “Parents care about safety, they care about security and cleanliness,” Foster remarked, sharing that these concerns were paramount in making sure her family got safely to their destination, for example, “or if we would even drive through the parkway to Roanoke in a way that would be clearly before dark,” Foster said.
“They didn’t want us to suffer any indignities that we would have to contend with,” she added.
Jones said that initially in the early years of the parkway’s development, there were plans for segregated spaces for African American visitors on the Parkway. Pine Spur was a proposed recreation area outside of Roanoke that would have been segregated.
“The recreation area was planned for African American use only and was to have a coffee shop, camping grounds, a cabin area, playgrounds and a softball field,” according to Jones.
A local historian who also studies the subjects discussed in the presentation, Appalachian State University history professor Dr. Neva Specht, said that the choice of location for Pine Spur was due to its proximity to Roanoke, a more urban space in which more African Americans lived at the time. The failure to build Pine Spur, according to Specht, was due to timing and the Blue Ridge Parkway’s decision not to continue building segregated spaces after the early 1940s. Specht said that construction of Pine Spur, which began in 1941, was halted at the onset of the U.S.’s entrance into World War II, and by the time the war ended in 1945 the national parks had been desegregated and Pine Spur was never completed nor opened.
Specht said that the decision not to build segregated spaces on the Parkway was not necessarily a means of completely desegregating the Parkway.
“There was never a time where the National Park Service said ‘we’re going to integrate,’ but kind of by default, that’s what happens because they scrap the plans to build Pine Spur and some of the other places that were to have African American-only sections. Those all just kind of faded away,” Specht said. “It wouldn’t have served the people very well if (the Blue Ridge Parkway) had come out and said they were entirely desegregated.”
Because federal law and practice was most likely ahead of many states’ policies regarding segregation, Specht said that after the Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954 — which deemed segregation unconstitutional in schools — many states still had public facilities and private businesses enforcing segregation. Even if the Blue Ridge Parkway had explicitly desegregated, many of the spaces African American visitors would stop along the Parkway would not be.
The Parkway’s decision to not officially desegregate is still etched into the Parkway, Specht said. At Doughton Recreation Area in northern North Carolina, it is still possible to see the faint signs that read “Negro Only” on the segregated bathrooms resting downhill from the rest of the picnic tables and scenic viewing area.
While these signs may still be visible, Jones and Specht both said that there is a lack of recognition and historical interpretation of spaces African Americans interacted with on the Parkway. A participant asked the speakers how the histories, both told and untold, of the Blue Ridge Parkway influence how people interact with the space today. Rogers said that these stories help guide tourists where they plan to visit.
“For example,” Rogers said, “if you were promoting a story that is new or different, one that they’re not familiar with ... and you put it out there, they may be curious to come to a campground such as Roanoke Mountain or go out to Pine Spur — that in a way influences their visitation.” She said it is “hard to know what stories (visitors) will be interested in as you go along,” but that broadening the stories told can change the way one looks at the space.
Aside from the proposed Pine Spur recreation area, one place Jones said the Blue Ridge Parkway could expand its stories including African Americans is at the historic Saunders farm. Jones said the Saunders sold their land, which included a homestead and houses for livestock, to the government for the Parkway to be built on it in 1942 for $2,000. A historic report was completed about the Saunders farm in 2005, but Jones stated that the pictures in the report document that there is no interpretive sign on the Parkway for visitors to learn about the African American homesteaders’ experience. Moreover, Jones said, the homestead is not accessible to tourists.
Meanwhile, Jones stated that only a few miles down the Parkway from the Saunders property is the Johnson family farm, a white-owned homestead from the 1950s that was restored by the National Park Service in 1974. Onsite at the Johnson farm there are historical interpreters, and the farm is open to the public.
“This is an example of the erasure of Black history on the Parkway,” noted Jones.
Specht said that Moses Cone Estate in Blowing Rock is another location in which many African Americans lived on the Parkway in which Black history has often been forgotten. The original family that owned the estate, Moses and Bertha Cone, had African-American servants Bertha brought from Baltimore when she came down to live in Blowing Rock during the summers, according to Dr. Specht.
During the time the Cones lived at the Blowing Rock estate, said Specht, there were about 30 families who worked the 50,000 apple trees on the estate and were tenants on the estate. Specht said that inside of the house, many African-American servants worked, and that many “big homes” of white families in Blowing Rock had African-American servants brought from larger cities by families living seasonally during the summer in Blowing Rock.
“There was this really rich community of African Americans,” Specht said, that was created by those coming to Blowing Rock with their employers. “They had their own community, and would go to this juke joint up in Blowing Rock and they really had their own Black community here in the summer.”
“What’s really interesting,” Specht said, “is when you talk to residents of Blowing Rock, white residents, they will say there’s never been many Black people in Blowing Rock. It’s like it’s all been forgotten.”
Foster said, looking forward, she believes there is opportunity in asking, “How do we develop this curiosity, and see what’s around and support what people are doing, and connect with each other to build relationships with people that we need to know?” Looking at spaces like Pine Spur and the Saunders farm as jumping off points, she said that these stories can spark curiosity and conversations about the history of the Blue Ridge Parkway.
“All stories have power and significance, because we are all part of the humanity on Earth,” Foster said.