Racism In Raleigh: Remnants of Segregation At Umstead Park
Ever wonder why Umstead State Park has two entrances that never connect? Well, that’s not exactly true. The Crabtree entrance to the north and the Reedy Creek entrance to the south technically do connect, but not by any paved roads.
You can get from one end to the other quite easily, but only if you take a series of trails from one parking lot to another. The shortest route that connects north and south is the Reedy Creek trail, a path used by runners, bikers, and riders on horseback. You cannot drive a car from one end of Umstead to the other.
At first glance, this seems intentional. If traffic were allowed to use Umstead as a shortcut between Raleigh and Cary, the potential damage motorists could do to the park would be quite high. Keeping both ends separate seems a logical step in preserving the natural beauty of the park. But that’s not the real reason.
In 1934 the State bought the Crabtree Creek Recreational Demonstration Area for $1. Before that, it had been home to hundreds of people trying to scrape by during the Great Depression. They sold lumber, grew cotton, and milled their grains at the old Company Mill site. You can find remnants of their failed settlement all around the park.
There are fallen chimneys, broken foundations, and random rubble just off of the beaten paths. Cemeteries can be found in several locations. Some have been kept up by family members, others have begun to crumble in disrepair. All are reminders that a community once tried with great difficulty to make a living in the bleakest of times.
Failed settlements were just the beginning of Umstead’s history.
The Crabtree Creek Area opened in 1937, and was a hit. People looking for a much-needed break from the labors of industry were invited to enjoy campsites with picnic tables. Racial tensions in the nation were still high, and in 1950 segregation reared its ugly head. One thousand acres of the park were split off and reserved solely for African Americans. This new park was established as Reedy Creek State Park, and we still call the south entrance by that name today.
A few years later Crabtree Creek was renamed for Governor William Umstead, a WWI veteran and hugely popular Democratic conservationist. When Brown vs. Board of Education sent shockwaves through American culture, Governor Umstead was credited with easing the mounting frustration and animosity, even though he felt that “separate but equal” was constitutional.
The two parks remained segregated for sixteen years.
It wasn’t until 1966 that both parks were re-integrated into the Umstead we know today. Right on the heels of the end of segregation, plans were made to turn the park into a zoo. After that was scrapped, building an amusement park was also considered. Thankfully both those ideas never made it beyond the planning stages, and it remained a state park for all visitors to enjoy.
Hiking through the many trails, you wouldn’t have a clue that any of this occurred. The entire history resides in a quaint museum in the Visitor’s center, built in 2001 at the north end.
It’s easy to miss when you’re out for a quick run or a casual stroll. Perhaps it’s poetic that the Reedy Creek trail connects North and South Umstead today, a hint of a past filled with turmoil among the tranquility of the forest.
Visitors may never be aware of the true meaning of the gap, but it sure makes me appreciate Umstead State Park that much more.