How the ‘MLK of Jones Lake’ Made This NC Park an Island of Equality

How the ‘MLK of Jones Lake’ Made This NC Park an Island of Equality

DeWitt Powell, Jones Lake's longtime park superintendent, vigilantly guarded the atmosphere of peace and dignity of the park. No litter or profanity was permitted, and Black families could camp, hike, fish, swim or just relax on the lake's shores. Powell, who held his post for decades, established that atmosphere in the Jim Crow era, against the odds in rural Bladen County.

By Emiene Wright

February 4, 2022

Jones Lake State Park, North Carolina’s first to admit Black visitors, was a place guests could breathe freely, thanks to its first Black park superintendent.

From the 1930s through the 1980s, Bladen County held a special place in the hearts of Black people from North Carolina and beyond. It was home to Jones Lake State Park – the first state park to admit Black guests – and its guardian, Superintendent DeWitt Powell.

Jones Lake State Park is a gorgeous stretch of land, 2,208 acres in Elizabethtown in southeastern North Carolina. Thirty miles from Fayetteville, the park has abundant attractions, from hiking trails through stands of pine and cedar trees to its titular body of water, the 224-acre Jones Lake. The ancient water formations called bays are rarely larger than 500 feet, making Jones Lake special indeed. 

Just as striking as its natural beauty is the space Powell created for Black North Carolinians to breathe easy in the open air.

The ‘MLK of Jones Lake’

There were white superintendents before him, but as the first Black superintendent, Powell made it a community resource where organizations could meet, kiddie teams could play baseball, and churches held baptisms on Sundays. In Jim Crow times, such use of a public space was usually reserved for whites.

Powell “was like the Martin Luther King of Jones Lake,” said Charles McKoy, who began working summers at Jones Lake as a young man. He frequently refers to Powell, who passed away in 2001, as his second dad. “I can’t remember anyone ever saying anything bad about him,” McKoy said.

We put North Carolina voices first. Subscribe to the free Cardinal & Pine newsletter.

The park opened in 1939, at a time when African Americans were legally barred under the racist rules of segregation from many of the “pursuits of happiness” enjoyed by whites. That  included free interaction in nature. Although Black North Carolinians were taxed at the same rate as whites, Black dollars went to supplement white institutions such as the state’s park system (and the school system and the hospital system) that they could not fully access.

Seeing as they were also barred from public pools in the state, the option of a swim during sweltering North Carolina summers made Jones Lake immediately, immensely popular. It also helped that, in the early 1950s, the state appointed Powell to the park’s top spot. 

DeWitt’s Rules

“Mr. DeWitt,” as most in the community called him, was not a physically imposing man. He was about 5’9, 150 pounds, clean shaven and of a medium dark complexion. His long, slim fingers earned him the nickname “Spider” among his friends. But his presence was undeniable. 

The former Army sergeant ran the park, known as “Mr. DeWitt’s Lake,” like a well-oiled machine. The gates never opened late. Staff scoured the campsites for every bit of trash, kept the showers pristine, and even scrubbed the grills between visitors.  

“You took that shovel and that rake and you had to clean. Mr. Powell would always advocate with the guests too, to keep our place looking good,” McKoy recalled. 

Powell’s rules, as well as his trustworthy demeanor, established Jones Lake’s safe, welcoming atmosphere. Open alcohol consumption was forbidden, but a beer in a paper bag, stashed under a chair, got a blind eye. Cursing could get you escorted from the premises. And although entering the park was free, getting in the lake cost kids fifty cents.  Still, Powell knew when to bend the rules. 

“Sometimes people would come to swim, but they didn’t have the money,” Dewitt, Powell’s eldest, said. “They would ‘go see Mr. DeWitt’ and Daddy would work with them. He was that kind of person.”

Dangerous Times

The Powell family lived in a house on the premises of the park. Just as they made the park a haven of equality for the Black community of Elizabethtown, Mr. DeWitt and his wife, Sallie Powell, a math teacher, extended that influence beyond the park gates. 

At her urging, they sent their two oldest children, DeWitt and Velvet, to integrate Elizabethtown schools in 1966. Patrick, 10 years Velvet’s junior, was too young. Shortly thereafter, widespread school integration followed. The transition was not bloodless. 

“I hated it, going to school with them,” DeWitt said of the challenges he faced, initially in sixth grade, and again in high school.

Shootings and arson occurred, and a teen DeWitt grew politicized by the treatment of the Wilmington Ten, who were wrongly convicted in 1972 of firebombing a store  during school integration protests in Wilmington. The innocent college students served close to 10 years in prison before their convictions were overturned. One of the Ten, Benjamin Chavis, eventually became the youngest executive director in the history of the NAACP.

DeWitt became active in the protest movement, and one day received a threat on his life. When he got home that evening, a line of state troopers were blockading the park entrance. No threat to his family would be tolerated at Mr. DeWitt’s lake.

Integration the Norm

The young Powells were already familiar with integration as a social norm. Jones Lake State Park drew not only locals, but people of all races from across the state and around the country. No one was turned away because of prejudice, making the grounds an island of equality in discriminatory times. 

“Even though it was the only lake that African Americans could go to at that time, the park [policy] was never just, ‘No, you can’t come in because of your race.’ So basically, we would see African Americans and whites as well,” Velvet told C&P.

Most, like H.F. Buehler of Flushing, Mich., had nothing but praise. In a 1968 letter to the state parks department, Buehler described a “delightful” stay with his family. 

Not everyone was pleased with Powell’s position of power, however. Four years earlier, a Sergeant and Mrs. G.A. Potter of Jacksonville, NC sent a letter to Raleigh registering their “shock and disappointment” to have mistakenly visited a park that admitted Black people. They requested directions to another that had not been “taken over by the negroes.”

‘I Had Jones Lake’ 

The Potters may have been more comfortable at White Lake, about 10 miles away. Even after integration was mandated by law, the place remained hostile to Black visitors. When he was of driving age in the 1970s, the younger DeWitt and his friends ventured out to White Lake.

“You didn’t relax enough to have fun. You had fun, but only with your buddies you went with, and you didn’t go by yourself,” he said. “They would stare, call out ‘[Slur for Black people] in the water.’ I don’t think I went to White Lake five times. Why? I had Jones Lake.”

If You Go

Jones Lake State Park remains a popular destination for visitors to hike, camp, picnic, and enjoy the lake. The park’s bathhouse and concession stand open up in the summer months, and rentals of canoes and paddle boats are also available. Visit the park’s website here.


Related Stories
Share This