Midtown Raleigh News

Wiggins: John Chavis Memorial Park marks 75th anniversary

A view of Chavis Park and the Raleigh skyline looking out from the new house for the Allan Herschell Carousel, dedicated at hte park on Apr. 20.
A view of Chavis Park and the Raleigh skyline looking out from the new house for the Allan Herschell Carousel, dedicated at hte park on Apr. 20. rwillett@newsobserver.com

Long before state House Rep. Yvonne Lewis Holley became a lawmaker, she was a 4-year-old who learned to swim alongside four siblings in the Olympic-sized Chavis Park pool; and a teenage lifeguard at the same pool who got to dance in the park once before her daddy, broadcast legend JD Lewis, moved his Teen Age Frolics in-studio.

“Many of the teenagers back then said we were ‘raised at Chavis Park,’ ” Holley said. “People looked out for us, and when I became a lifeguard, I looked out for people, too. It was a place you could go to have good, clean, wholesome fun.

“It was a wonderful, wonderful time.”

It’s impossible to recreate that era, but a celebration of the past, present and future is on tap Friday and Saturday at the 75th anniversary of historic John Chavis Memorial Park.

As we mark history, there’s a chance to make history, too. The two-day celebration concludes with a challenge to break the Guinness Book of World Records for the Longest Soul Train Line. In January, the record of 291 people officially went to Philadelphia, which has vowed to keep it there.

The event is sponsored by the City of Raleigh Parks, Recreation and Cultural Resources Department and championed by the South Park East Raleigh Neighborhood Association, or SPERNA.

Officially, the park’s 75th birthday was in March, said Lonnette Williams, a founding member of SPERNA who has helped spearhead several projects to preserve the historical integrity of the community and its Chavis Park anchor.

“We were determined we weren’t going to just let this pass us by,” she said.

The kickoff reception is 5:30-6:15 p.m. Friday, honoring John Chavis, a pre-Civil War teacher and preacher of both black and white children, and the history of John Chavis Memorial Park, once the only park in the state that welcomed black people.

We’ll learn, reminisce and celebrate through the words of Holley and two Chavis descendants, Venessa Chavis Harrison, recently named president of AT&T North Carolina, and Helen Chavis Othow, author of “John Chavis, African American Patriot, Preacher, Teacher and Mentor (1763-1838).” We’ll also partake in other presentations, historical pictorials and documentaries, including the Chavis Park Cell Phone Diaries, Williams said.

From 6:30-10:30 p.m. Friday, we – and our lawn chairs – are invited to a live jazz concert in the park, featuring two local bands and a trio. Food vendors will be there for dinner.

On Saturday from noon-4 p.m., the Shaw University Marching Band will open Family Day. The school’s WSHA-88.9 FM live broadcast will be the backdrop for free festivities, including carousel rides – from 9 a.m.-8 p.m. – and inflatable bounce houses and games. A historical scavenger hunt from 1-3 p.m. in the park aims to teach everyone about historical aspects of the park still intact, Williams said.

There also will be food trucks and vendors offering free information, from financial education to maps of the area. The Soul Train Line starts at 3:30 p.m.

Harrison, a Chavis descendant who heads AT&T North Carolina, is “elated” to be part of the celebration.

“That community is the foundation of who I am,” said Harrison, 56, who lived on Heyward Street until midway through high school, so close to family who called Chavis Heights home that “it was like we lived there because we were there all of the time.

“Chavis Park transformed so many lives in that it provided a place for people in Raleigh, and surrounding areas, a place to come and have fun and fellowship in spite of everything that was going on in their lives. It was kind of like an escape for them to release.

“It used to be so much fun down there,” Harrison said. “We’d swim and dance – and they had the best hot dogs.

“It took the whole village of Chavis Heights/Chavis Park to raise all of us in that community.”

Through AT&T, Harrison said, she’s still able to pay it forward with initiatives like one not too long ago in which the company gave free Internet to 300 families in the Chavis Park community.

“That made me proud,” said Harrison, a 33-year veteran of AT&T. “I grew up there – and I work for a company that truly believes in giving back.”

Holley is excited, too, that Chavis Park maintains its history and realizes its future.

“I am thrilled it is 75 years old, and I am thrilled there are a lot of people who remember and loved it,” she said. “I am one of them. Some of my best memories are growing up there, and I think it needs to continue to be a really viable park.”