Borne of segregation, Salem Twp.'s Fairview Park welcomes all
Fairview Park in Salem Township is a very special place for WQED and KDKA host Chris Moore, who is on its board of directors.
"They're not making any more land," Moore said. "I thought it was very important."
The land, off of Old William Penn Highway, was originally purchased in 1945 by the Monongahela Valley Sunday School Association.
It was a consortium of black Sunday school superintendents who established the park primarily as a safe place for blacks to congregate and celebrate in a heavily segregated America.
The park has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 2011, and in August received an official historic marker from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.
"I just feel honored to be a part of the legacy of upholding this and bringing it to the next generation," said Anita Jackson-Lowe, who began attending board meetings in the mid-'90s and now serves as the first female president of the park association's board of directors.
The original purchase was 155 acres. A significant portion was sold in the late 1950s and early 1960s in order to pay back taxes, and today the park spans 55 acres between Old William Penn Highway and Route 22.
Trustee emeritus Harvey Freeman of Homestead remembers the park in its heyday.
"I used to come out here for church picnics, and sometimes there would be as many as 30 churches all here at once," Freeman said. "There was a pool, there was a gas station and restaurant right on (Old William Penn) Highway. … You could pull up here at one time and there would be 30 buses lined up from all different areas."
This year, members of the association held the 71st annual Fairview Park picnic, and the association board pays dues and puts in plenty of work to maintain the grounds and keep the park a beautiful, safe place for anyone to enjoy.
For trustee chairman Darryl Lowe, who grew up in West Virginia, the park is a reminder of home.
"It's peaceful," Lowe said. "It's nice to come out here and do some work. We have a chance to use our hands and fulfill this vision the founders had: of a great place with some solace."
Moore said that solace and isolation can occasionally rattle young people who are used to the constant hum of the city.
"We had a group out here one time, helping out with some maintenance, and they said, 'We're gonna go over in the woods for a little bit,'" Moore said. "They got over the hill, and a big thunderclap sounded. They all came running back real quick. Or we'd be sitting in the pavilion and an owl would hoot, and everyone would be looking around like, 'What was that?'"
In the 1960s, as Jim Crow laws around the nation were struck down, membership at the park declined sharply.
"It was actually tougher, because (black) kids could then go other places like Kennywood, and they wanted to go," Freeman said.
The association has gotten some of its former land back over the years. One parcel was sold and became the home of Pleasant Hill Baptist Church, and the property owners willed the land back to the park after they died.
These days, the association board is working with community groups to make sure people know about the park: local Boy Scout troops helped clean out the park's barn, and the association website discusses its history and its availability to anyone in the community.
"For me, it's recognizing the vision other folks had when it began," Moore said. "It's that 'do-for-self' attitude.
"They didn't have a place to go and they said, 'We'll make a place.' "Young people need to know about that. These folks didn't let anyone stop them."
Lowe agreed: "That's the future: the kids, the people in the community who get a chance to come out here and experience something they that they didn't even know was here."
Patrick Varine is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-850-2862, email@example.com or via Twitter @MurrysvilleStar.