Lincoln Park has changed somewhat since its heyday of the early and mid-20th century, when it was the only park for black Chattanoogans and it featured an Olympic-sized swimming pool and other outdoor recreation facilities.
But the strong feelings for it within the black community have apparently not changed exactly 100 years after its creation and opening.
“This is holy ground to us,” said Eric Atkins as he stood in the park’s grassy acreage behind Erlanger Medical Center.
Mr. Atkins’ comments came Saturday afternoon during the Lincoln Park Neighborhood Association’s special reunion celebration. The sounds of music and the smell of food cooking filled the air, as speeches were made, entertainment was offered, and fellowship and eating were enjoyed.
Everything was designed to remember the past, when the park was a recreational refuge for black Chattanoogans, officials said.
“The centennial represents, as far as the senior citizens, a reflecting back as what it was when this was the only park they had,” said Tiffany Rankins.
Her mother, fellow event organizer Vannice Hughley, was one of those who grew up enjoying the park in the segregated days.
“This was the only place where Mother would allow us to come,” said Ms. Hughley as she reminisced while also trying to keep track of the present and the festival-goers coming and going.
Ms. Hughley said she grew up in a house near the cemeteries by UTC and what is now the Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences, and she remembers that the park was full of activity. It had a now-razed Olympic-sized swimming pool, basketball and tennis facilities that are now a parking lot, and two fields that were used for black baseball and football games and field days for the black schools.
“This was the only lighted field,” the retired Erlanger trauma ICU unit clerk said, adding that some former black professional baseball players like Willie Mays and Satchel Paige played there. “And this park was the only place we as African-Americans could come.”
She added that they did get to attend the Interstate Fair at Warner Park, but that was about the only time they were allowed there.
While the park was convenient, other aspects of that racial era created inconveniences for her, she remembered. Ms. Hughley said that even though she lived right by the old Chattanooga High, she had to go to Howard High, where she graduated in 1957, because integration in the schools had not yet taken hold here.
Howard did play some of their football games at the old City stadium, however, she added.
The park celebration has been taking place on the Saturday after Labor Day every year since 2013, when Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke announced the park would be preserved for perpetuity, she said.
Despite what Ms. Hughley called frustrations over Erlanger’s control of the park and talk of extending Central Avenue through the land, the group was focused on celebrating, not worry on Saturday. To help remember the centennial, Ms. Hughley and others had a table set up selling souvenir T-shirts, hats and bags.
About five antique cars were also on display as tangible reminders of the days when Lincoln Park was the happening place for the black community.
“It’s our celebration,” said Ms. Hughley in summing up all the offerings and festivities. “This was our park and we don’t want to forget it.”