Parks matter. Not only do they provide cites space for recreation and healthy activity, but they are also part of any community’s core. Parks facilitate connection—a place where we gather and link with others in vital ways. They are necessary for the mental health and personality development of any populace. For Paducah, Noble Park has long been the city park. But for many years, the city closed it off to a large portion of the population due to segregation. In the early 1930s, the black community had a small park on the south side of the city. But it was nothing on the scale of Noble Park, nor did it provide adequate space for large gatherings and recreation.
By the mid-1930s, many of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal initiatives to combat the Great Depression were in full swing, something that would help build a new park in Paducah. An appropriation of $4.9 billion for the WPA (Works Progress Administration) provided jobs by building up our public infrastructure through projects such as parks, schools, roads, bridges, and more.
In 1936, the Paducah Colored Civic League formed a committee to develop a municipal park for Paducah’s black community. Just a year prior, the city commission had opened the pathway for the creation of the park, and with potential WPA funding, its future came into focus.
The city had already found a good spot. The roughly 55-acre site just off Hinkleville Road was, at the time, just outside the city limits. It had been the home of Paducah’s pest house, a farm of shacks and tents where those with communicable diseases such as smallpox were housed and treated until they recovered and were no longer contagious.
The site had been condemned as treatment of such diseases advanced by the mid-30s, and most patients were housed in an isolation unit at Riverside Hospital. The black community agreed on the location. There was plenty of room with open spaces for ball fields, tennis courts, and more—and wooded areas provided respite with retreats into nature. For black citizens and city officials, it was a win-win. The land could be developed for the good of its citizens with no purchasing costs.
Naming the park was a community affair. The Colored Civic League asked Paducah’s black students to write essays. They considered scores of names, including naming it Anderson Park after Dr. Dennis Henry “DH” Anderson, founder of the West Kentucky Industrial College which later became West Kentucky Vocational Technical School.
The winning essay came from Lincoln High School freshman Mattie Pate. She said:
“I would like to name the park Stewart [sic] Nelson Park, for Stewart Nelson, who was a graduate from our school, Lincoln High. Stewart Nelson is one of the most brilliant young men for the race in America. He was the son of a doctor. He made a lieutenant in the army during the World War and was later commissioned captain.
“Stewart Nelson was the first Negro president of Shaw University. He later became the first Negro president of Dillard University, New Orleans. He married a Miss Church of Memphis, TN. He is now one of the most outstanding Negro educators in the United States and is a native of our city. For due respect we should name our park in honor of such an outstanding man of our own race and town.”
A columnist wrote that the name “places honor where honor is due and should serve as a spur and a beacon to many young persons among the local colored population, enabling them to rise above the intolerance and repressions of generations and to work out their own destinies as every American child is entitled to do.”
On May 30, 1938, an estimated crowd of 2,000 enjoyed the newly opened park. The air was filled with the smell of barbecue and the sounds of laughter, conversations, and playing children. 18 softball teams played games that day.
On June 24, at an official naming ceremony, Stuart Nelson returned home to speak at the park, stating his appreciation and that he owed more to the people than they owed him.
The city held a formal opening on Thursday, August 6, 1938, after additional electrical lines had been run and more finishing work had been completed. The Colored Civic League led a parade to the park, a long celebratory line that began at 7th and Adams. Buses ran every thirty minutes, connecting the park to regular city lines. Picnics and ballgames filled the day’s schedule. At 7:30 PM, the dedication ceremony included addresses from the city’s mayor, city manager, the commissioners, and Dr. D.H. Anderson.
The next year, the black community raised funds to install a children’s wading pool with a capacity for 180 children. Tennis and basketball were also a part of the park. A caretaker’s home provided shelter for the person hired to oversee park operations.
On holidays, the park was at capacity. On Independence Day, 1956, for example, baseball teams played, the wading pool stayed full, and children from the Blackburn Park area of Paducah presented an art exhibit. It was also during this time that free movies were presented on Friday nights.
Stuart Nelson park became a central gathering place—a place where community became a verb. When black organizations needed a place to congregate, they went to Stuart Nelson. And oftentimes, special buses were arranged to transport attendees from the city to the park.
West Kentucky Vocational School hosted track and field competitions. Beginning in 1961, the new Paducah city recreation program invited kids to participate in sand crafts, clay modeling, baseball and softball camps, record hops, folk dancing, tennis instruction, croquet, horseshoes, table games, and more. The Colored Girl Scouts took advantage of the natural aspect of the park’s landscape, learning a variety of outdoor skills including how to build a fire.
Stuart Nelson park was a gathering space for special occasions, most notably for the annual celebration of Emancipation Day (the 8th of August). Estimated attendance in 1939 was upward of 5,000 with locals and people from out of town attending. 293 alone had come from Louisville via train.
The park was also a mecca for softball. During the summer, the newspaper relayed daily scores and game recaps that rivaled the stories of Major League Baseball games. Teams traveled to Paducah—those such at the Metropolis Brown Bloomer ladies team and the Brookport Broyles Ramblers. There is evidence that both black and white teams used the park, and it remained a hub for the sport long after the desegregation of the parks.
While Stuart Nelson Park was worth celebrating because it gave the black community a place for recreation and congregation, it did not create equity for all people. Black Paducahans were still not allowed in white parks. It seems that most of Paducah saw the establishment of the park as a good thing. But there remained an air of superiority by some. Mayor Edgar T. Washington, in his remarks at the dedication, said “We want you to keep the park clean, and we know that you will so conduct yourselves at all times that there will never be any reason for Paducah to regret having given you this park.” For all the talk about people bettering themselves and finding successes in life, it had to be done within the established, restrictive bounds of segregation. There was a long way to go.
On August 8, 1936, an unknown newspaper writer wrote about the city’s 10,000 black residents celebrating the opening of the park. He said, “The continuing conquest of bitter prejudice is one of the high spots of human history. For history to the Christian is not the succession of empires built by the sword, but the steady progress of humanity itself toward a civilization of peace and universal brotherhood. The happy day seems not far off when Americans, both white and colored, can pull together without consciousness of racial differences for a greater, happier nation.”
When the Paducah Colored Civic League chose Stuart Nelson as the name for the new park in 1936, the honor was already warranted. William Stuart Nelson, born in 1895, had served in World War I, attended Howard University, schools in France and Germany, and Yale. He became the first black president of Shaw University and the first president of Dillard University.
After the naming of the park, Nelson made several trips to India as part of the American Friends Service Committee. There, he marched with Ghandi through Bengal. Nelson became internationally known as an expert on nonviolence, corresponding regularly with and influencing Martin Luther King, Jr. When Nelson sent him his 1958 article, “Satyagraha: Ghandian Principles of Non-Violent Non-Cooperation,” King wrote that it was “one of the best and most balanced analyses of the Gandhian principles of nonviolent, noncooperation that I have read.”
Nelson was active through the civl rights movement, speaking at the 1959 Institute on Nonviolence and Social Change and the 1962 convention of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and joining the Selma to Montgomery March in 1965.
William Stuart Nelson died in 1977.
Information from The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford