At Shenandoah National Park, the past, present, and future of a historic center of Black life

The Urban Heritage Project, an initiative of the Weitzman School’s Department of Historic Preservation, is working with the National Park Service to evaluate historically segregated cabin camps as nationally significant cultural heritage sites.

Honeymoons. Homecomings. Live music. Great food. Kids playing ping-pong on a big porch. These are just some of the fond memories that Shirley Ann Tutt McCoy and Elaine Taylor Blakey recall from their time at Lewis Mountain, a center of Black life in Shenandoah National Park in the late 1930s through the 1950s. McCoy’s uncle, Lloyd Tutt, was the manager of the resort. “Mr. Tutt really had that lodge swinging. He really did. And everybody had such a good time,” Blakey, a frequent visitor to Lewis Mountain, recalled in an interview with researchers at the Urban Heritage Project (UHP), an initiative of the Department of Historic Preservation at Penn’s Weitzman School of Design and PennPraxis, the applied research and community engagement arm of the School.

A historical photo of a group from Washington, D.C. traveling through Shenandoah National Park.
Lewis Mountain was the center of Black life at Shenandoah National Park during the late 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. Under Jim Crow, it was the only area designed to offer overnight accommodations to Black visitors. It was also the only area within the park run by and for Black campers, providing a safe space for recreation. This undated historic photo shows a group from Washington, D.C. traveling through Shenandoah National Park. (Image: Personal collection of Reed Engle, National Park Service)

However, Lewis Mountain’s history is not so simple. Located along Skyline Drive in Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park, it was the only overnight lodging available to Black campers in the park. The picnic grounds, lodge, cabins, and campgrounds were all built separately and unequally under Jim Crow-era segregation laws. There is a tension between the joyous times and the painful history that ran parallel to them. That history is very much a part of the place and its memorialization. Randall Mason—a professor of historic preservation and city and regional planning at Weitzman, senior fellow at PennPraxis, and director of UHP—and his team are drawn to places where such “negative heritage” demands attention.

Mason and his team deal with negative heritage in their preservation work, which is situated at the “intersection of built heritage, cultural landscape, and societal change through multidisciplinary research and practice.” They have been working alongside the National Park Service (NPS) and community stakeholders at three sites where New Deal-era design and its complicated history are at the fore: Lewis Mountain in Shenandoah National Park, as well as several camps in Catoctin Mountain Park in Maryland and Prince William Forest Park in Virginia. All three sites feature formerly segregated cabin camps and are being evaluated as nationally significant cultural heritage sites.

During the Great Depression, Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) crews made many disused agricultural and industrial landscapes into newly valuable parklands. “The segregated cabin camps created in these places are beautiful, carefully designed, and manifest some of the deep tensions of public space in the U.S.,” Mason says. “It really was ‘America’s best idea,’ but it was also one of our worst moments.”

Jane Nasta measures a historic boulder drinking fountain at the Lewis Mountain campground.
Jane Nasta measures a historic boulder drinking fountain at the Lewis Mountain campground. (Image: Courtesy of Weitzman News)

The Weitzman team, with NPS, as well as the Olmsted Center for Landscape Preservation, NC State University, and Monica Rhodes of Weitzman’s Center for the Preservation of Civil Rights Sites, recently produced a cultural landscape report (CLR) for Lewis Mountain. The process included significant community engagement with the New York-Virginia Club, a group of Luray residents who moved away and formed the club to stay connected. Among its many events, the club frequently hosted an annual homecoming picnic at Lewis Mountain. Many club members also visited or worked at Lewis Mountain. Today, the club stewards the complicated legacy of Lewis Mountain and wants to keep its history alive. In meetings with the Weitzman team, the club’s members brought to life the once-thriving community that visited Lewis Mountain.

This story is by Matt Shaw. Read more at Weitzman News.