John Shearer: Examining Historic Booker T. Washington Park Bathhouse That Will Be Razed

  • Friday, June 21, 2024
  • John Shearer

A morning visit earlier this month to the Booker T. Washington State Park was a quiet one.

As I turned into the park by the uniquely designed visitors center off Champion Road -- and a mile or two off Highway 58 -- I saw only a few visitors, and basically none by the large, drained swimming pool and closed bathhouse.

Only a car belonging to a couple apparently wanting to take a short hike on the adjacent trail interrupted the peaceful setting, although an enthusiastic park ranger leading about 10 youngsters through a pre-lunch, team-building game could also be heard 100 yards down a hill. A few campers and fishermen could be noticed, too, farther away in the same general direction and closer to the water.

But the situation is about to get noisier. As has been announced, an event center that will feature meeting space, a kitchen, restrooms, and a playground is scheduled to be built at the park in the near future as part of a park upgrade. As a result, the bathhouse built in 1950 during the era of segregation will be torn down.

While that step had hit a snag after a consultant with the Tennessee Historical Commission said the bathhouse was built during the era of segregation and the razing might affect efforts to get the park listed on the National Register of Historic Places, that situation has now been settled. According to some email correspondence I had with state parks spokesperson Kim Schofinski, the building will be torn down. But she said efforts will be made to preserve the historical story of the park.

“Tennessee State Parks recognizes the historical and cultural significance at Booker T. Washington State Park, and we are committed to telling the important story of the park's history while still providing high-quality amenities that best serve the community's needs,” she wrote. “To that end, we are pursuing a National Historic District designation for the park and will be replacing the old bathhouse structure with the new facility and outdoor recreation space.”

As I examined the structure, which was the reason for my visit from my home in the Northgate Mall area after hearing efforts were underway to tear it down, I realized the mostly concrete and V-shaped structure would certainly not win any awards for the prettiest building in town.

It appeared to be built for functional purposes and could have been changed a little on the outside over the years. A peak through a crack in the boarded-up and covered central check-in area did reveal some nice knotty pine paneling on the inside. That area must have been a concession area or where some type of business was done related to the pool, and the two wings likely contained restroom and changing facilities for each gender.

But what the building lacked in architectural charm, it has made up for in its history related to the overall park, many might say. While a lease was made with TVA to create the park for blacks back in 1938 in that era of segregation, World War II had evidently slowed efforts.

But work was underway again by the late 1940s under state parks director B.R. Allison to greatly upgrade this park or give it more basic amenities. News reports were even saying this park might compare to the T.O. Fuller Park in Memphis as being a top park for the black community.

When a state recreation facility for blacks was being eyed in East Tennessee, the area around Norris Dam near Knoxville was also discussed, but state officials realized a greater concentration of blacks existed around Chattanooga to make use of a park.

Beside a bathhouse -- and a pool constructed down closer to the lake and shut off from the lake water so it could be chlorinated -- some lodging, cabin or camping facilities for blacks were also planned. The latter was to aid in the fact that it was harder for out-of-town and traveling blacks to find places to stay in that era.

The bathhouse, pool and other amenities were completed and dedicated on July 2, 1950. Some amenities for the larger white state park, Harrison Bay, a few miles north alongside Highway 58 were also dedicated that same day.

Included in Harrison Bay’s improvements were an identical bathhouse to the one at Booker T. Washington, and some further investigation would be required to see if it is still there.

On hand for the dedication program was Tennessee Gov. Gordon Browning, who had served first as governor in the late 1930s and again beginning in 1949. He and the other officials traveled to the dedications at the two parks aboard the Oneonta II, the boat of Chattanooga Chevrolet automobile dealer Emmett Newton.

They and the others also watched some boat races staged that day in an event that attracted about 11,000 people, and TVA also handed over the rights of ownership to the parklands to the state.

During the Washington Park dedication event, which also included a water safety demonstration in the large pool by some Tennessee State University students, Gov. Browning told the crowd that he had come from humble farm beginnings in West Tennessee. He was pointing out that he thought anyone of limited means should be able to enjoy such recreational offerings that the park gave.

Others taking part in the ceremony attended by 1,500 people were future City Commissioner John Franklin of the Negro Junior Chamber of Commerce; Paul Breckinridge, who sang some songs; the Givens-Freeman-Davis American Legion Post’s drum and bugle corps; and the Rev. Otis Hayes of Harris Chapel AME Zion Church, who gave the invocation.

Lou Williams from the Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce introduced the governor, and the Rev. E.P. Williams of the Cosmopolitan Community Church offered remarks after the governor.

The governor during his remarks also praised the work of black park superintendent William C. Bell. Mr. Bell would serve as park superintendent at Booker T. Washington for 32 years. The graduate of Howard High and former football player and World War II veteran would go on to serve on the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Planning Commission.

A Methodist, he died in 1991 at the age of 78 and was buried at Chattanooga’s National Cemetery.

His wife, Ola Mae Murphy Bell, also enjoyed a distinguished career teaching school for 40 years before her death in 2003. She had also attended Howard High, and they both received their bachelor’s degrees from Tennessee State before she got a master’s from Columbia in New York.

The Booker T. Washington Park would later grow in popularity, with large crowds beginning to show up after the improvements were made in 1950. In 1957, the pool by the lake was improved, but it would not be until May 1992 until the current large pool opened on the hill near the bathhouse.

In late 2021, the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation announced plans to close the pools at both Booker T. Washington and Harrison Bay parks due to declining usage and maintenance and upgrade needs. The pools had not actually been open since before the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020.

So, now the bathhouse and pool at Booker T. Washington sit quietly amid the echoes of laughter and fun from past usage before and after the days of segregation. While I saw both black and white people scattered about the park during my visit, it obviously is an important part of the black historical story in this region.

And that story will apparently no longer be able to be told without the tangible reminder of the old, almost-inconspicuous-looking bathhouse.

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