Black History Legacy Park planned for Martin Luther King Avenue

Published 6:00 am Saturday, May 20, 2023

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By Clark Curtis

For the Washington Daily News

The Fourth Street Black History Legacy Park will become the first of its kind in Washington that is solely dedicated to the local history of the area. It is the vision of Leesa Jones, the director of the Washington Waterfront Underground Railroad Museum, and many other family members. It will be located at the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Drive and Van Norden Street where the home of her grandparents, William and Olivia Cozzens, once stood. “This property has been in our family since 1918,” said Jones. “The family decided that we wanted to make this a legacy park, not only to honor our family, but to showcase the historical significance of what was then 4th Street, one of the most prosperous streets in the Black community. We lost the majority of the original homes and properties during Urban Renewal in the 1960s. As a result many people, even those who currently live there, are totally unaware of its history. We want to showcase the glory days of what 4th Street used to be and share it with everyone.”

Jones is working very closely with family members including her nephew, Kevin Alsop, owner of Nemas Gardens in Maryland, which specializes in installing gardens and beautifying green spaces. Together, they are formalizing the design and layout of the park, which will include benches, historical signage highlighting the history of the area, and a community garden in honor of Olivia Cozzens, who had a very large garden at their home. But for Alsop, it is more than just building a park “When I learned about Grannies’ big garden I knew we had to have one,” said Alsop. “But I also came to the revelation that gardening is in my DNA and that is why I’m so passionate about it. This journey has also afforded me the opportunity to learn so much about my family that I never knew. Things like my great grandparents running a restaurant here for over 30 years during the Depression. What strength, resiliency, and ingenuity that must have taken. That is why this is more than just a park to me, it is sacred ground. I have a feeling of anticipation, of great expectation of what this experience holds for me and my family and I am truly honored to be a part of it all.”

As Jones points out, her grandparents were among the very long list of Washingtons’ most prominent Black businessmen and women, community leaders, doctors, and others who worked and lived in the Black historic district. It was also the location of many firsts including the first Black library in Beaufort County, the first Black Kindergarten in Beaufort County, and the home where the first teachers at the Washington Colored School resided. “This place where we are standing was my ancestors land and to be able to honor them in this way is very significant for me, and for my entire family, as well,” said Jones. “The legacy park allows us the opportunity to share our personal history with other family members and the whole community. It is a legacy that we can pass down to our children, our grandchildren, and generations to come. And to be the first to create a legacy park in Washington where we can all come together is very special and moving.’

“This all brings back so many special memories for me,” said Lena Bailey Davis, Jones’ sister. “We used to play in our grandparents back yard. We had so much fun playing our own little games and playing in the mud like kids do,” she said with a huge grin. “I’m glad we have this opportunity to share it all with others and provide them a place to come and sit down, it’s going to be really nice.”

This also marks yet another special occasion for local trailblazer Florence Lodge, who led the effort to have 4th Street renamed Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. “It took a lot of hard work to get the street renamed, but we got it done,” said Lodge. “Things were starting to get really rundown and I hoped that renaming the street might help turns things back in the direction of its glory days. I was so excited to hear the news of the Fourth Street Black History Legacy Park. Hopefully, it will make things even greater. I always do things from my heart and I sure hope I will be able to help in any way I can. Just imagine being able to look over there and seeing that park. Won’t that be nice!”

The official groundbreaking for the park is scheduled for Juneteenth of this year.