Montgomery Hall Park history preserved

Until the Civil Rights era of the 1960s, African Americans in the Jim Crow South lived under the harsh social and legal laws that created a separate and very unequal society. That was as true for African Americans in Staunton and Augusta County as it was anywhere else. However, in 1946, thanks to the perseverance and leadership of Staunton’s African American community, a small beacon of light was created in the form of Montgomery Hall Park.

Staunton and Augusta County’s white residents had enjoyed the lovely park called Gypsy Hill well before the 20th century, but black residents were only allowed to visit the park one day each year. Shortly after World War II, leaders in the black community began asking for more use of Gypsy Hill. This was not an option that the city council approved of, however, the governing body did listen when African American leaders like the Rev. T.J. Jemison of Mount Zion Baptist Church suggested the city give his community a park of their own.

In June of 1946, the city purchased the historic farm called Montgomery Hall that was once owned by the Peyton family. The city paid $42,500 for 150 acres and the grand house. Thus Montgomery Hall Park became one of only two parks created specifically for the African American community in the entire state of Virginia.

After the purchase, the city placed the operations of the park in the hands of the black community. From that point, the committee ran the park with almost no support or interference from the city. That meant raising money for capital projects as well as daily operations. The committee took its job seriously and recorded everything it did in a notebook. From 1947 until the fall of 1969 when integration brought the park into the city’s system, details of the park’s history were faithfully recorded in that book. Today that worn notebook represents the only written history of Montgomery Hall Park.

A few years ago James and Helen Becks found themselves in possession of that long closed notebook. James was on the original board of Montgomery Hall Park and Helen helped record many of the minutes. The two represent the last living members of the park’s committee. They felt like the proud history of their park should be preserved.

The Becks approached then councilwoman Rita Wilson about how to preserve the book. She arranged with the city to scan the notebook and then gave it as a gift to the Augusta County Historical Society so that it could be properly preserved and available to researchers in perpetuity.

The historical society would like to formerly honor the Becks for their service to the community and for preserving the park’s story by placing the notebook within the archives of the Augusta County Historical Society.

There will be a short ceremony at Montgomery Hall Park at 10 a.m. on Wednesday March 14 to do just that. Everyone is invited to attend and thank the Becks personally for the legacy they helped create.

 

Details

What: Ceremony by the Augusta County Historical Society and the City of Staunton to honor James and Helen Becks

When: Wednesday March 14, 10 a.m.

Where: Montgomery Hall Park

Contact: Nancy Sorrells, Augusta County Historical Society President, (lotswife@comcast.net, 540-292-4170)


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