CLIFTON FORGE — The historic Booker T. Washington Park on Main Street in Clifton Forge is undergoing a series of improvements and enhancements due to the efforts of the Friends of Washington Park Committee.

The park has undergone cleanup efforts in addition to building a new, large pavilion with concrete slab. Future plans include additional barbecue grills, trash cans and playground equipment. The bathrooms are also being redone.

Work on Booker T. Washington Park began 86 years ago with the desire to create a playground for neighborhood children. The playground and athletic field were officially named Booker T. Washington Park in 1946.

A letter from C.A. Smith and E.A. Mansfield recommended that the name of the playground be named “Booker T. Washington Park” after Booker T. Washington, who was a native of Virginia.  

In order to better identify the connection of Booker T. Washington and the park, the Corridor Curb Appeal Committee has worked in conjunction with Friends of Washington Park to create four signs that have been installed in the park as a book trail around the pavilion.

The signs include images of Booker T. Washington, quotes from his best-selling book, “Up From Slavery” and facts that connect Virginia’s native-born son to the state of Virginia.

Booker T. Washington was born a slave in April of 1856 in Franklin County. With the Emancipation Proclamation, he was freed as a young boy and followed his mother to Malden, W.Va. At age nine, he worked in salt and coal mines while pursuing his strong desire for education.

As a teenager, he walked across Virginia and enrolled at the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (now Hampton University), working as a janitor to help pay expenses. He graduated in 1875 and returned to Malden, where for two years he taught children in a day school and adults at night. 

Booker T. Washington was an educator and reformer. He was responsible for the early development and success of what is now Tuskegee University in Tuskegee, Ala. He became a noted writer, orator and perhaps the most prominent African-American leader of his time, advising several United States presidents.

The signs were funded with an Alleghany Foundation grant to the Corridor Curb Appeal Committee.  Many people contributed time and talent to develop the signs, including Melissa Hundley of Bear Mountain Signs, Troy Cottrell’s team at Williams Fabrication, and John Morris of CovDesigns, who volunteered time to help with formatting of the sign design.

Friends of Washington Park Committee member Evelyn Cooper commented, “‘If you want to lift yourself up, lift up someone else.’ Booker T Washington, 1856.  Booker T. Washington Park was originally designed for African- Americans during the time when one could not freely visit other parks or communities without opposition. But now, BTW Park serves as a place for all to visit, learn and grow in unity.”

Members of the Friends of Washington Park are Rodney Brown, Evelyn Cooper, Wanda Davis, John Grimes, Patty Davis Ross and Catherine Williams. Members of the Corridor Curb Appeal Committee are Martha Atherholt, Mott Atherholt, Bill Atherholt, Nancy Newhard, Mar Jimenez, Gayle Hillert and Chuck Unroe.

“The book trail signs at Washington Park are an example of members of the community working together,” said Hillert. “The process of choosing the images and quotes from ‘Up From Slavery’ revealed Booker T. Washington, the man.  His life and his contributions are amazing especially considering the challenges he met and overcame.

“When asked to be a part of this project, everyone who participated was eager to be involved,” Hillert continued. “We want to especially thank the Public Works employees and Town Manager Chuck Unroe, who went above and beyond to get these beautiful signs installed. We hope the words on the book trail signs will be an inspiration to all who read them.”

Improvements for Washington Park will continue.  To donate to the Friends of Washington Park project, a GoFundMe fundraising post can be found on Clifton Forge Main Street’s Facebook page.

Donations can also be sent to Washington Park Project, Town of Clifton Forge, 547 Main St., Clifton Forge, Va. 24422, or visit town hall and use the drop box located in front of the building.  Donations will be separated from the town’s General Fund for the purpose of park renovations.  

For more information on donating, please contact the Clifton Forge town manager’s office at 863-2500.

Clifton Forge Public Works employees Chris Keyser, kneeling, and Billy Campbell install Book Trail signs at Booker T. Washington Park. (Photo Courtesy Gayle Hillert)