During the Great Depression, T.O. Fuller State Park was one of the few parks in the nation open to African Americans. But if the state of Tennessee has its way, the park's golf course may soon be closed to everyone.
As part of a reduced state budget, the park's 18-hole golf course is slated to close October 1st. T.O. Fuller's course and the nine-hole course at Old Stone Fort State Park in Manchester are the only state courses scheduled to close.
"The golf course is the revenue-generating part of the park. If you shut down the revenue side, we're afraid it won't be long before you shut the park down," said Friends of T.O. Fuller State Park president Ralph Thompson. "We've asked the governor and the commissioners to take that under consideration."
According to Meg Lockhart, a spokesperson for the state department of environment and conservation, the state spends $270,000 a year to fund T.O. Fuller's golf course. The course generates more than $312,000, money that, along with an additional $650,000 from the state, funds park maintenance, ranger salaries, and office expenditures. Lockhart said the state only plans to cut the $270,000 allotted for the golf course — a move that would affect six full-time employees — but the funding cut won't be final until the state legislature passes the appropriations bill.
The threat has prompted Friends of T.O. Fuller State Park to start a petition to save the historic course, and the volunteer group has collected more than 1,000 signatures so far.
State representative Barbara Cooper recently introduced an appropriations amendment to stop the course's closing. She's also planning to present the Park Friends' petition to Governor Phil Bredesen.
"We're in dire straits for the budget, but we have to have some priorities," Cooper said. "T.O. Fuller State Park needs to be one of those priorities. We have a number of annual events that depend on that park."
Thompson emphasizes the park's historical value as a reason the course should be spared.
"There are only two state parks in Tennessee named after black [historical figures]. There's Booker T. Washington State Park in Chattanooga and T.O. Fuller State Park," Thompson said. "Out of 53 state parks, you'd think we should be represented."
T.O. Fuller State Park was named after Dr. Thomas O. Fuller, a prominent African-American civic leader in the early 20th century.
"I'd like to see how much money the state puts into the Bear Trace golf courses in East Tennessee and how that stacks up against us," Thompson said. "Anything from Jackson, Tennessee, back west is treated like the state's stepchildren."