George Washington Carver Park, located near Carterville in northwest Georgia, was the first state park designated for African Americans.



First State Park Designated for African Americans 

George Washington Carver Park Was Dubbed "The Beach" And Became A Recreational Mecca For Families To Camp, Swim, Picnic, Cook-Out And Attend Musical Events

George Washington Carver Park, aka The Beach, first built by John Atkinson and family [Photo Credit: George Washington Carver Park]

Georgia Supreme Court Judge Robert Benham has seen many changes come about during his life. Today, he is the court’s longest serving member and the first African American elected to the state’s legal heights. For six years, his fellow justices selected him to serve as their Chief Justice.

But 60 years ago, the young Robert lived on a state park where segregation was the rule. His father served as superintendent of George Washington Carver Park, located near Cartersville in northwest Georgia, the first state park designated for African Americans. Judge Benham remembers those five years as times of fun - and freedom.

“My two brothers and I thought we were Huck Finn,” he recalls. “We’d go boating, waterskiing, hike along the trails. We had a great time.”

The 345 acre park, located on then-new Lake Allatoona, formed by damming the Etowah River, opened in 1950. At the time, Judge Benham says, it was the only swimming area open to African Americans for 700 miles and folks came from Atlanta and far beyond, even from Birmingham, Chattanooga and Charlotte. “It was a mecca back then, and people traveled a long way to get here. It was exhilarating to meet all those different people,” he says. “Back then, everyone just called it The Beach.”

The park became a beloved gathering spot for family reunions, school events, scout jamborees and church picnics. “I can remember waking up on a weekend morning and there’d be 8 or 10 buses lined up at the gate, waiting to get in,” Judge Benham says. 

Rocking chairs facing Lake Allatoona inside the park [Photo Credit: George Washington Carver Park]
Dock for fishing on the lake [Photo Credit: George Washington Carver Park]

Among the groups visiting regularly were parishioners from Dr. Martin Luther King’s Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. Mrs. Coretta Scott-King and her family have many fond memories of days spent at The Beach, according to Charles Atkinson, son of the park’s founder, John Atkinson. A member of the famous Tuskegee Airmen, the first African American pilots to serve in the United States military, Atkinson experienced prejudice first hand in Atlanta before he joined the service, Charles writes.

Following the war, he says, black World War II veterans and civic groups raised demands for increased access to public lands and services for African American citizens. John Atkinson leased land on Lake Allatoona from the Army Corps of Engineers to establish a park, which eventually became part of the state park system. Atkinson was named the park’s first superintendent, becoming the first black man to hold such a post.

Named for black inventor and educator George Washington Carver, the park is the only one in Georgia's state system ever named for an African American. The name had particular significance for Atkinson. The Tuskegee Airmen trained at Alabama’s Tuskegee University, where Carver served as head of the Agriculture Department for 47 years and conducted many of his ground-breaking experiments with peanuts, sweet potatoes, pecans and other crops. Carver Park quickly became a regular stop for African Americans traveling through the region, according to park historian Kim Brown.

“There was something back then called the Green Book, which listed places it was safe for African Americans to stop in the segregated South, and Carver was in it,” she says. “A lot of black musicians were traveling on what was called the Chitlin Circuit, playing at clubs all over the South. They used Carver Park as a rest stop, a break from traveling those old highways. That’s how Ray Charles ended up playing here, and Little Richard. Otis Redding played here too, when he was just 15 years old, as a member of Little Richard’s band.”

“A lot of people learned to dance at The Beach,” Judge Benham remembers. “We had a jukebox but we called it a piccolo back then. A lot of kids learned to swim there, too.” No swim classes accepted black children in those days, so the Benham brothers taught classes every summer. 

Men gather inside what is now GWC Park [Photo Credit: ATL Parks Dept]
Judge Robert Benham [Photo Credit: George Washington Carver Park]
Children play at the beach as a community in the 1950s [Photo Credit: ATL Parks Dept]

Robert and his two older brothers also performed with the famed St. John’s Ski Bees, a waterski team made up of black kids from Atlanta and Jacksonville, FL. “We would perform down on the St. John’s River and on the lake up here and big crowds would come out,” Benham recalls. “The real draw was the opportunity for a boat ride. For many people, this was their first time in a motorboat, and we had one of the fastest boats on Lake Allatoona.”

The judge recalls earning pocket change selling snow cones and grilling hot dogs and hamburgers at the park’s concession stand. “The old folks would fish all night long back then,” he says. “Some of them were over 100 years old; some of them were former slaves. I’d sort of bed down on the dock and listen to their stories about how things were, how things had changed, and the treacherous journeys they’d traveled.”

Now, Judge Benham says, he’s had the pleasure of fishing with some of those men’s grandkids and great grandkids. He takes his own family back to Carver often, and enjoys having picnics under the trees overlooking Lake Allatoona and sitting in the rocking chairs on the porch of the community center where the walls are covered with memorabilia. The park, which was turned over to the county in 1975, now welcomes people of all races. The trails are lined with interpretive signs giving historical perspective to the park’s founding and its importance to the African American community and heritage.

“It’s very nostalgic for me,” Judge Benham says. “This was our chance to get away from the streets, to get away from the prejudice. At The Beach you could shout if you wanted to, you could holler. This was a place where you could be free.”

Renee Wright 

A graduate of Franconia College in Social Psychology, Renee has worked as Travel Editor for Charlotte Magazine and has written three travel guidebooks for Countryman Press among other writing assignments. She enjoys food and camping. 

Allatoona Landing Marine Resort

Make Sure To Stay At: 

Allatoona Landing Marine Resort, just 28 miles north of Atlanta in the charming town of Cartersville. The resort is the perfect spot to bring your boat and enjoy the lake's 12,000 acres of water, with plenty of dock space and a full-service marina. 

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