Desegregation of the Louisiana State Parks System

The task of desegregating Louisiana's State Parks System was in large part overseen by the Louisiana State Parks and Recreation Commission. The official progress of desegregation lasted roughly ten years, from 1952 to 1962; however, actual integration of the system lasted many years longer. For the most part, the desegregation of Louisiana's park system was not driven by directives, but rather by concerned citizens and community culture on a park-by-park basis.

Desegregation was localized and varied in extent based on the norms and culture of the local communities serviced by State Parks. Some communities, and their parks, were more "segregated" than others. During this period, there was no organized or legislated attempt to integrate the Parks system. The existence of 4-H Camps for use by African Americans, developed as early as 1933, excused the need for an integrated Parks System, or so the Parks and Recreation Commission thought. By the early 1950s, this was to change.

In 1952 the Louisiana Legislature passed Act 569, authorizing $50,000 to the State Parks and Recreation Commission for the development of another 4-H Camp for use by African-American citizens in Grant Parish. The Jesse Harrison 4-H Camp included ten cabins, two restrooms/showers, dining and recreation hall, office building and a recreation pavilion. After the park was built, it was found that the well water was unusable, and the camp was closed rather than incur the cost of drilling additional wells. African-American youth were sent to the nearby white 4-H Camp, ending the Parks and Recreation Commission's initial foray into developing a park for the sole use of African-American citizens.

After several African-American children drowned in the Bogue Falaya River in 1953, both the white and African-American communities recognized the need for recreational swimming facilities. It was at this time that the Parks and Recreation Commission established the "Negro Advisory Committee." The Committee, made up of prominent African-Americans such as Ernest Miller from Shreveport, Dr. Martin from Lake Charles and Joseph Bartholomew from New Orleans, met in Baton Rouge on January 5, 1954. The Committee agreed to the establishment of park facilities in the New Orleans, Monroe, Lake Charles and Shreveport areas. The Committee also pointed out that money would be saved if the Parks and Recreation Commission were to provide facilities for the use of African-American visitors at existing parks. Most importantly though, the Committee stressed that the integration of the existing State Parks System should be the ultimate goal of the Commission, and this goal should be taken into account with all other recommendations of the Committee. The Commission opted to pursue the second recommendations, and planned to expand facilities for African-American visitors at existing parks.

Lake Bistineau State Park was chosen as the first State Park to have developed facilities for use by African-American visitors. The development of separate facilities for the use of African-American visitors still did not constitute an integrated park system. As justification for developing separate facilities at existing parks, a Louisiana Statute of 1956 proclaimed that all public parks, recreational centers, playgrounds, etc. would be segregated "for the protection of the public health, morals, and the peace and good order in the state and not because of race." In other words, the State was attempting to justify separate facilities based on the safety of the facilities' users and not on race. One of the common fears was that allowing African Americans into areas previously reserved for "white" visitors would lead to violence. The Parks and Recreation Commission considered closing parks if forced integration were to occur and violence erupted, as was the case with the South Carolina and Georgia State Parks systems. The threat to close down parks was directly aimed at Fontainebleau State Park, due to concerns of violence over the use of the "White Only" restroom. Additionally, feedback from Fontainebleau users, to the Commission, indicated strong opposition to integration at the park.

Meanwhile, an interesting situation developed at this time around Chicot State Park. Several white citizens from the community of Ville Platte petitioned the Parks and Recreation Commission in 1958 to allow the use of the fishing area reserved for African-American visitors, at least for "three weeks in the spring." Petitions read, "We, the undersigned, do petition you to leave the road open to White as well as colored people, up to the Spillway in Chicot State Park," and "We, the undersigned, do protest prohibition of white fishermen of using the road to the Spillway and Chicot Bayou. The white and colored have been fishing together for years and no trouble. Why not leave conditions as they are?" The Commission responded to the petition, retracting the regulations that provided for separate fishing areas for African-Americans. This is another example of localized desegregation at a park facility as orchestrated by community practices and culture.

Girl Scout encampment at Chicot State Park.Even though by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 African Americans could legally utilize any State Park facility, the stigma of segregation lasted for many more years and the use of facilities previously designated as "White Only" facilities by African-American park visitors remained extremely low. It wasn't until 1972 that the State of Louisiana removed the last of its Jim Crow Laws from the books, fully opening the door for use of all public facilities in Louisiana to African-American visitors. The fear of violence, local cultural tradition and the habit of segregation policies still prevented visitation of African-American visitors to State Parks facilities throughout the 1970s. Just as the process of officially desegregating Louisiana's State Parks system was a long gradual procedure, the challenge of creating welcoming recreational opportunities for Louisiana's African-American citizens proved to be a gradual process as well.

The 1960s also saw continued expansion of the State Parks System, with eight parks and historic sites added. Additionally, the Louisiana State Arboretum was created out of a parcel of Chicot State Park, leading the way for the development of state preservation areas in the following decades.

One of the most far-reaching developments of the 1960s was the birth of the Land and Water Conservation Fund. The Louisiana Recreational Advisory Council was formed to advise the director of the State Parks and Recreation Commission on L&WCF matters, but the State Parks and Recreation Commission assumed these duties later.