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'A Miracle In The Mountains:' Virginia Restores Historic Natural Park

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Mason Adams/ WVPB
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Clifton Forge Mayor Pamela Marshall welcomes visitors to experience a “miracle in the mountains” at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for Green Pastures.

Curtis Beverly was just a kid when he first came to Green Pastures.

“I was knee high to a grasshopper then,” Beverly said, looking out on a bright green field, ringed with trees. “We used to have church outings down here.”

Beverly wasn’t the only one. Throughout the mid-20th century, this natural park in eastern Alleghany County, Virginia, was a destination for Black residents of Appalachian towns in a multi-state area.

Green Pastures had been designated as an African American recreation area by federal and Virginia agencies in 1937 at the behest of the Clifton Forge branch of the NAACP, which pointed out that other areas such as nearby Douthat State Park were effectively whites-only. Green Pastures was officially integrated in 1950, but it continued to be a gathering spot for Black families from southwestern Virginia well into the 1970s.

View of the swimming area at Green Pastures, taken several years ago for a book that was written about the park for the 'What's Your Story?' Project.
Chuck Almarez
View of the swimming area at Green Pastures, taken several years ago for a book that was written about the park for the 'What's Your Story?' Project.

Ettrula Clark Moore, a niece of the pastor that led the Clifton Forge branch of the NAACP, remembers the games kids played there: “When you come through the entrance and up the road and look to the right at this field, it would be people playing baseball and all kinds of games.”

A lot of folks remember what Green Pastures was like in its heyday, in the 50s, 60s and 70s.

“As soon as we turned off that road, we were assaulted by the sound of children,” said Clifton Forge Mayor Pamela Marshall. “Children were everywhere. It looked like ants. And their laughter. We was standing up in the car, you know, achin’ to get out, achin’ to get out.”

Ethel Thompson recalled playing in Green Pastures’ small lake.

“I learned how to swim down here,” Thompson said. “Because black kids didn’t know how to swim. This was our swimming place.”

And everyone remembered the food.

“Our mothers — everybody’s mother — would put the food in that pavilion,” Marshall said. “The kids would head off to the beach. The dads would be on the dam jumping into the deep end of the water. So it was just a full day of fun, food, friends. Beautiful time.”

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Mason Adams/ WVPB
'What’s Your Story?' project director Joan Vannorsdall (right) speaks with Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for Green Pastures in September.

But by the ‘80s, Green Pastures, now called Longdale Recreation Area, was starting to fade. By the 2000s, the Forest Service had stopped upkeep at the park.

That’s where the park was when a local history group called What's Your Story? got involved. People from all walks of life shared their memories of Green Pastures.

“The What's Your Story? project is what unified us all, and what literally, physically brought us all together to witness what happened here, and what it meant to people's lives here,” said Joan Vannorsdall, project director and a member of the Alleghany County Board of Supervisors. “And that was the stimulus.”

The people around the What's Your Story? project began working together to restore Green Pastures. The effort included everyone from the family who lived next to the park and had been keeping it up for years, to the mayor of Clifton Forge.

“The door opened when we said, tell us your story — and the story was heard by the state at the right time,” Vannorsdall said. “We were told actually by the regional director of the state parks that it was the history of this place and their awareness of it that saved it.”

In late September, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam announced the state would lease Green Pastures from the Forest Service, clean it up, and operate it as a seasonal state park unit.

The official announcement and ribbon-cutting came in the last months of the governor’s term — just two years after he was hit with a 2019 scandal for allegedly dressing in blackface in college, and one year after Black Lives Matter rallies had swept the country and resulted in the removal of Confederate monuments across Virginia. When Northam visited Green Pastures, it was just days after a large statue of Robert E. Lee was removed in Richmond, the state capital and former capital of the Confederacy during the Civil War.

Northam tied those sweeping changes to the restoration of Green Pastures — which had been an important gathering spot for Black families during the final decades of state-mandated segregation.

“We're telling a story based on facts, not myths,” Northam said from a lectern. “It’s important to acknowledge past wrongs and the harm done.”

Marshall, Clifton Forge’s mayor, ended the ribbon-cutting by welcoming visitors back to Green Pastures once again.

“Come back to Green Pastures,” Marshall said. “Utilize these resources. Enjoy once again this piece of history and witness this miracle in the mountains for many years to come.”

Clifton Forge resident Gregory Key, who worked on the oral history project, said the ribbon cutting marked a milestone.

“It’s been a long time coming, and this place has been missed,” Key said.

Green Pastures is open again. The field, the lake and the trails are ready for new memories to be made.

Photo taken several years ago at Green Pastures.
Chuck Almarez/ 'What's Your Story?' Project
Photo taken several years ago at Green Pastures.


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