Imagine that it’s 1936. The Great Depression is in its seventh year, more than 20% of Americans are unemployed, and in five years the country will enter the fray of World War II. Many Americans are left with little more than the comfort of friends, family and the great outdoors. And, if you are one of the 11 million Americans who is not white, you and your family are barred from many areas, including national forests and grasslands.
But you also know the USDA Forest Service has provided a safe, recreational space for families like yours in the Alleghany Highlands. You’ve heard from friends that visitors come by the busload on trips that can take several hours, often passing closer recreation sites, restrooms and other amenities forbidden to them.
It’s now 2020 and that safe space, called the Green Pastures Recreation site, is nestled on the George Washington Jefferson National Forest in the James River Ranger District near Covington, VA. Since the early 2000s, a group of volunteers have worked closely with local advocates, including long-time residents, the Alleghany Historical Society, as well as the Forest Service to help maintain this once segregated and now very historic recreation site.
Dr. Calvin McClinton, former Howard University professor who grew up in Alleghany County and traveled the world before retiring in Wrightsville, VA, remembers visiting the still segregated Green Pastures during his childhood in the late 1950s. He remembers driving up to the recreational site to enjoy the picnic area and open space for swimming, sports and fun activities with his family.
“The recreation area became a sacred space for the African American community and served as a soul fulfilling experience,” McClinton says. “My wish is that when it is reopened—the rich history of this place is shared, so that people understand how it is sacred to our community.”
The recreation site was established during the Jim Crow era, when the country was still legally segregated, and when Black people were denied their full rights as citizens. During this time, federal agencies including the Forest Service were bound by these unjust laws.
In 1936, at the request of the Clifton Forge Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, President Franklin D. Roosevelt directed the Forest Service to designate a recreation site open to African Americans. The construction plan was approved, and in 1938 the Dolly Ann Civilian Conservation Corps Camp F24 swiftly started construction. The park was built in response to the nearby whites only Douthat State Park. The site officially opened to the public on June 15, 1940.
Green Pastures became the most popular recreation spot for African American communities as far away as Northern Virginia and Maryland. The park was equipped with a small man-made lake, the original Civilian Conservation Corps’ built bathhouse and picnic shelter, barbeque grills, hiking trails, horseshoe pits and even a softball field.
Despite the distance, Green Pastures was popular enough that the demand quickly outgrew capacity. Visiting families would drive pickup trucks to nearby Black communities, and church communities would pick up kids and bring them to the area. Some even rode their bikes, a huge risk in the South.
Elizabeth Higgins, a Forest Service employee who is also a resident from the James River District, walked through Green Pastures, reciting most of its history from memory. “This place reminds us that diversity, inclusivity and fair treatment are American values we have worked hard to develop,” Higgins said. “My fear is that if we treat these spaces as if they are expendable, then we may also forget what they taught us.”
Forest Service District Ranger, Elizabeth McNichols said the site is a “point of pride for this community and they are proud to have been part of its history and are working hard at preserving it.”
McNichols currently works alongside Dr. McClinton and the Alleghany Historical Society to curate documents and memories of the Green Pastures site.
At its peak in the early 1950s the park could host more than 1,800 visitors a day, which occasionally forced the Forest Service to close the area for public health and safety. After World War II, Green Pastures was renovated and re-opened as an integrated public site. In 1963, it was renamed “Longdale Recreation Area” after the surrounding community. It closed in 2017.
In 2018, the site was placed on the list of Virginia’s Most Endangered Historic Places (PDF, 10.5 MB) by Preservation Virginia, a national leader in historic preservation. Since its closure, there has been a grassroots movement to reopen the beloved recreation site and restore it to its former condition.
As you gaze out at the lake, which is muddy and in need of dredging, it’s a bittersweet reminder of the countless memories this place made possible — even with the undercurrent of knowing those experiences were only possible because of social duress. Despite this, the peace you feel with the sun on your face and the wind bustling through the leaves beckons to a time where this masterfully crafted space was not only an oasis for the outcasts, but grew into a lively communal recreation area with a deep history and an uncertain, but bright future.
And just last month, the State of Virginia announced its plans to propose funding that would restore the Longdale Recreation Area in Alleghany County under its historic name, Green Pastures. Under the plan, the State would also work with the Forest Service to take possession of Green Pastures and reopen it as an outpost of Douthat State Park.
For additional information on Green Pastures/Longdale Recreation, please contact District Ranger Elizabeth McNichols, at firstname.lastname@example.org or (540)-839-2521. For stories straight from the people that experienced the former Green Pastures when it was open, read What’s Your Story? Vol. III: Green Pastures at Longdale.