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Kentucky trail commemorates once-segregated state park

A recently opened two-mile trail that connects Kentucky’s Cherokee State Park and Kenlake State Resort Park is much more than simply a new place to hike. The trail commemorates an important place in American history.

Built by the Tennessee Valley Authority and opened in 1951, Cherokee State Park was the only segregated state park in the south United States, and one of only three such parks in the entire country at the time. It was part of Gov. Simeon Willis’ vision to develop a park for African Americans during a time when public accommodations were segregated.

The establishment of a segregated park was controversial at the time, with some praising the commonwealth’s willingness to provide “separate but equal” accommodations while others voiced concerns about the stigma of segregation.

During the Jim Crow era of segregation, Cherokee State Park was one of only six parks for African Americans in the United States. The park was considered the finest vacation destination for African Americans in the south and attracted visitors from surrounding states. It covered 300 acres and featured a 200-seat dining hall, picnic areas, a bathhouse, docks for fishing and boating and cottages for lodging.

In June 1963, Gov. Bert Combs signed the Fair Practices Executive Order ending segregation of public accommodations in Kentucky. Cherokee State Park closed and merged with neighboring Kentucky Lake State Park (known now as Kenlake State Resort Park). Today, the park is used for weddings and other recreational activities.

The historic importance of Cherokee State Park was recognized with a listing on the National Register of Historic Places on January 1, 2009. In July 2021, the National Trust for Historic Preservation awarded the Friends of Cherokee State Historic Park a grant from the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund to help preserve the park.

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