Fifty years ago this spring, state leaders were arguing in federal court in favor of separate-but-hardly-equal state parks for blacks and whites.
The integration of the state park system gets less attention in the history books than similar efforts in schools and businesses. But the battle over parks was extremely contentious in its own way.
The fight began in 1955, when Charleston County residents sued to integrate Edisto State Park. The S.C. Forestry Commission, which then ran the parks, reacted by closing the beach park completely.
Eight years later, a group of Benedict College and Allen University students attempted to crash the gates at whites-only Sesquicentennial State Park. They called ahead to warn the S.C. Highway Patrol of their plans and were met by baton-wielding officers.
That confrontation, which ended peacefully when the students retreated, was the basis for the discrimination lawsuit argued in March 1963. At the time, the state operated 26 parks — 20 for whites only, three for blacks only, and three where blacks and whites had separate visitor use areas.
U.S. District Judge J. Robert Martin found in favor of the black students at Sesqui in the discrimination case and ordered the state parks to desegregate by Sept. 8, 1963.
The Forestry Commission instead shut down the entire park system.
The parks reopened their gates on a limited basis the following summer, but most facilities inside the parks remained closed.
The parks finally were fully integrated on June 20, 1966.
The Rev. H. Lloyd Norris, who was among the students turned away at Sesqui in 1963, returned to the park with a reporter from The State in 2001.
“I was hoping that I would live long enough to see the grudge on the part of the whites who wanted to preserve the status quo melt down, and we could all comfortably enjoy the facilities created by our state government,” Norris said.
Norris, who died in 2009, regretted that the history of the state parks segregation battle faded from public memory through the years.
“You’d be surprised how unattached the children of this generation are to the sacrifices we made for the privileges they take for granted,” he said.
The State Park Service doesn’t have park displays explaining the segregationist history, but it does discuss the subject in a section of its website. Parks director Phil Gaines wishes the parks did a better job of sharing that important history with visitors.
Gaines noted that when budgets were cut to the bone during the Great Depression, some park managers wondered whether the park system had hit its lowest point ever. It wasn’t even close to the worst times, he told them, urging them to consider the nearly three years when the parks essentially were closed to prevent integration.