I believe it was the spring of 2009 when I first saw images like the one above, Lewis Mountain in photos. I was researching African American history in our national parks when I came across them. I paused for awhile thinking to myself, how can this be, our national parks were segregated too? For some strange reason, I couldn’t wrap my mind around how nature had somehow been caught up in such ugliness.
I was even thinking this had to be someone’s ugly joke, no way could these images be real. So I started to do the research and came across this piece on the history of our national parks, Segregation in the national parks. And to my surprise, yes, even some of our national parks were segregated. I don’t know why this came as such a surprise to me, after-all, the entire country was on the same page when it came to segregation. I guess because nature in my eyes, is so inviting, loving, spiritual and freeing, that to see it in any other light, was unnatural.
I wanted to reach out to Shenandoah National Park to ask about the history of Lewis Mountain. The Deputy Superintendent, Jennifer Flynn was very welcoming of my questions.
How has Shenandoah reserved the history of Lewis Mountain?
It was first preserved by one of the first Rangers at Shenandoah, Darwin Lambert–he started work here in 1936. He captured the events of the development of Lewis Mountain and segregation/desegregation in the Park’s Administrative History he wrote in 1976. Then, in the late 90s we began to look more closely at our cultural history and the story of Lewis Mountain stood out as a very important part of our history.
We began to talk about it in our interpretive programs and on our website. In the early 2000s, we began the research for a permanent exhibit at Byrd Visitor Center about the establishment and development of Shenandoah National Park. As we developed the part of the exhibit about Lewis Mountain, we realized we needed more information. We contacted a local resident, Audrey Tutt Smith who had worked at Lewis Mountain and she helped us connect with others who had worked or recreated there.
We did a series of oral histories and we also commissioned a study that involved lots of work with the former Lewis Mountain employees. From that study, the researcher wrote a book that was to be published as part of the Park’s cultural history series. However, research revealed that this story is nationally significant and the book she wrote doesn’t have that broad of a scope. So, we are now working on acquiring funding to do another study and produce a final section to the book that would put Lewis Mountain in its place in the history of our country.
Why is it important for Shenandoah to tell the history of Lewis Mountain, versus letting it grow silent?
National Parks are for ALL people. It is important to remember that there was a time when we had to work to make that true. The oral histories prove what an important place Lewis Mountain was to the people who worked and recreated there–and the reasons it was important to them should never be forgotten. To let the story grow silent would be to silence the people who helped change our little corner of the U.S. and thereby changed the nation.
Are there any African American families still around, that once visited Lewis Mountain that have stayed in contact with Shenandoah? If so, has the park tried to record their stories?
Yes. We did a number of oral histories as part of the study and have plans to do more. At the conclusion of the first study, the Park sponsored a reunion and some of the people who had worked and recreated at Lewis Mountain came and brought their children and grandchildren. It was a magical day.
What is the best part of your job as Deputy Superintendent of Shenandoah?
I really love my job and the work that I do. Picking a best part is hard. As you can image, most of my time is spent in the office and in meetings, but my best days are the ones where I can be in the park watching visitors enjoy their park or working with staff on a project they are passionate about. I was 20 years old when I chose the Park Service as the agency that I wanted to work for. I picked it because I believe passionately in our mission and because I have fun almost every day. When I can be in the park and see visitors exploring and enjoying the adventure we have to offer, it refreshes and renews me.
What message would you like to share about Shenandoah National Park?
Come Visit! We are relatively easy to get to and have some much to offer. We have outstanding hiking and camping opportunities. We have excellent educational programs. We have lodges and dining rooms if you prefer a less rugged adventure. We have beautiful wildlife and scenery. If you enjoy being outside and in nature, we have something for you at Shenandoah. Come visit, the mountains are calling; find your park at Shenandoah.