Watson State Park
In 1937, Dr. John Brown Watson, the first president of Arkansas Agricultural, Mechanical and Normal College (now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff), donated 100 acres of land southwest of Pine Bluff (Jefferson County) for a state park. This would be one of the first public parks for African Americans in the South, where schools, recreational facilities, and other institutions were off limits to them throughout the century-long Jim Crow era of segregation. The park was named for the benefactor, Watson, a Black academic who was born in Texas but educated at the elite Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, and Morehouse College in Atlanta.
Arkansas’s honor in being early to create a park for African Americans was short-lived, however, for the state put little money or effort into developing the park, and it closed two years after Watson’s sudden death in 1942, and his widow sued, successfully, to have the land returned to his heirs. Over the next two decades, Arkansas would be the only state in the former Confederacy that offered no public park for Black residents. Enactment of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 for the first time gave Blacks the same privileges as whites in parks and other institutions.
Watson taught at Morehouse College from 1904 to 1908 while also earning a master’s degree and a doctorate. For a decade, he was secretary of the Colored Men’s Department of the International Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA). He was appointed president of Arkansas AM&N in 1928—the first leader to hold the title of president.
Having grown up in the South, Watson was a champion of equality in the only way Black men could be, and survive, in the era—through subtlety and deference. For example, in a letter published in the Arkansas Gazette in 1941, Watson decried the lackadaisical approach to Black-on-Black crime in Arkansas. He said Blacks’ killing or harming other Blacks was not of sufficient concern to law enforcement and the courts, leaving unsaid that enforcement and punishment were the province entirely of whites. It was a subtle precursor to the refrain “Black Lives Matter” eighty years later.
During his earliest efforts to get a park for Black residents of Arkansas, Watson wrote a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Resettlement Administration speculating that establishing such a park seemed at least possible since there appeared to be more “positive” relations between the races in Arkansas than in the past—his evidence being that there had been “but one lynching in this state in nearly nine years.” He apparently referred to the lynching of John Carter in downtown Little Rock (Pulaski County) in 1927.
When Roosevelt established New Deal agencies, including the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), to reverse the economic decline during the Great Depression, one agency—the National Youth Administration (NYA)—was dedicated to providing education and work for youth between the ages of sixteen and twenty-five, particularly in the destitute South. The head of the Texas division was Lyndon B. Johnson, the future president who would push through Congress the Civil Rights Act of 1964. One focus of the NYA was using young men and women to develop recreational parks. It was understood that the parks in the South would have to be developed as segregated institutions. Arkansas had begun to create its first public park—for whites—in 1921.
Watson saw the NYA program as an opportunity to provide recreational facilities for Blacks and lobbied for developing land and facilities in the heavily Black Pine Bluff area. All the state parks, around eight at the time, were for whites and were mostly in the scenic (and predominately white) mountain regions. The Roosevelt administration listed a potential project as “Arkansas R-4, Pine Bluff Regional Negro Park.” Governor Carl Bailey and the president of the University of Arkansas, which supervised Arkansas AM&N, were agreeable, and so, apparently, was the State Parks Commission. But the project faltered because little money was forthcoming for such projects. Finally, in 1937, Watson offered to give the state 100 wooded acres that he owned south and west of the campus and the city near Bayou Bartholomew. The NYA, the CCC, and the State Parks Commission pledged resources. Black schoolteachers and children raised $5,000, which was needed to match a $15,000 federal grant. By 1939, a caretaker’s residence, a barracks, and a dining hall had been built, largely by the labor of youngsters, but no further improvements were made. Watson had envisioned ballfields, a tennis court, and a small golf course.
Governor Bailey was defeated in 1940 by Homer Adkins, a former sheriff and Ku Klux Klansman. On the Sunday before Adkins’s inauguration in January 1941, the Gazette carried a long article detailing the history of and the facilities at Arkansas’s national park (Hot Springs National Park) and ten state parks. The section on the park for Blacks, under the heading “Watson State Park (Negro),” was a short paragraph describing the park as 100 acres of rolling ground “with a fair growth of pine and gum” with no completed facilities. The article, which was in a special section celebrating Adkins’s election and inauguration, was surrounded by advertisements congratulating him. Adkins would soon fire the head of the parks commission, who was a supporter of J. William Fulbright, the president of the University of Arkansas, whom Adkins also would fire and who would defeat Adkins in the U.S. Senate race in 1944. Adkins accused Bailey and Fulbright of being too friendly to the cause of civil rights.
Watson died of a heart attack on December 6, 1942, his park still undeveloped and unused. His widow, Hattie Rutherford Watson, petitioned the Pulaski Chancery Court in 1944 to order the state to return the land to the heirs because the state had failed to carry out its promise to develop the park. The court ruled that the state had abandoned the park and ordered it returned to Watson’s estate.
For the next two decades, Arkansas was the only Southern state where African Americans had no recreational park. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 gave Blacks the same privileges as whites at state parks as well as other institutions, businesses, and facilities that catered to the public.
For additional information:
“Recreation for All Is Found at State’s Public Parks.” Arkansas Gazette, January 12, 1941, p. 20.
O’Brien, William E. Landscapes of Exclusion: State Parks and Jim Crow in the American South. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2016.
Little Rock, Arkansas
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