The Vault

Photos: When Segregation Reached Right Into the National Parks

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These photographs of segregated areas in Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park date to the 1930s and 1940s. Images of segregation in urban areas abound, but there’s something especially disturbing about seeing the practice carried into the supposedly utopian outdoor playground of a national park.

Within the large Western national parks, established in the early 20th century, African-Americans weren’t particularly welcome. Geographer Terence Young reports that early 20th-century park administrators had a “conscious, but unpublicized policy of discouraging visits by African Americans, [who were], in the opinion of administration, ‘conspicuous…objected to by other visitors…[and] impossible to serve.’ ”

Shenandoah was one of a few national parks newly created in the South during the 1930s. During this time, Americans, including African-Americans, increasingly owned cars and used them for driving vacations. Following local Jim Crow laws, facilities at Shenandoah that were reachable by car (picnic areas, auto campgrounds) were segregated. 

As Young points out, some African-Americans initially welcomed these segregated facilities, as the alternative would be that they were shut out of the national parks altogether. But the NAACP, disturbed to see segregation extended to federally administered lands, protested Shenandoah’s “Negro areas,” as did many private citizens whose letters ended up on the secretary of the interior’s desk.

The official segregation of Shenandoah was short-lived. During WWII, the National Park Service, spurred by federal desires to raise morale in the African-American community, made officially desegregated facilities the norm for all national parks.

Thanks to Sherri Sheu for the tip.

Segregated Picnic Area

Lewis Mountain Entrance Sign, Shenandoah National Park. “Lewis Mountain and Other Segregated Facilities, 1939-1950.” National Park Service.

Elk Wallow Segregated Facilities, Shenandoah National Park, “Lewis Mountain and other Segregated Facilities, 1939-1950.” National Park Service.

Detail of Guide Map of the Shenandoah NP, 1938, H.S. Teller, U.S. Dept. of the Interior, National Park Service.

White Women’s Comfort Station - Kites Deadening, Shenandoah National Park. “Lewis Mountain and Other Segregated Facilities, 1939-1950.” National Park Service.