“Memories of Government Springs Park”

By Bobbie Kirkhart

Gov­ern­ment Springs Park was once the pride of Enid, Okla­homa. Dur­ing my child­hood, gov­ern­ment was con­sid­ered a good thing, so we often used that full name in admi­ra­tion. Today it’s usu­al­ly called sim­ply Springs Park. Every school child knew it had been a camp site on the old Chisholm Trail, the best known of the routes used to dri­ve cat­tle from Texas to the Kansas rail­roads after the Civ­il War.

Pho­to cred­it: Bill Robinson

It was a per­fect camp­ground: hills over­look­ing the flat land where the cat­tle grazed and, most impor­tant, the drink­ing water from nat­ur­al springs that fed the lake. These things also made a per­fect park for chil­dren: the flat land – then punc­tu­at­ed with unsafe but excit­ing wood­en swings, hand-oper­at­ed mer­ry-go-rounds, and see­saws – was great for run­ning. We could drink from the springs, at that time cor­ralled by a pipe. I’m sure the water was less than pure, but I nev­er knew any­one to get sick from it. We could climb the gen­tle hills to the swim­ming pool, and, on spe­cial occa­sions, my father would spring for a quar­ter to rent a row­boat to take us on the lake.

It was a child’s par­adise except that we could nev­er climb the steep­er hills on the south side of the lake. That was reserved for the “col­ored peo­ple,” as the oth­er two-thirds of the park was reserved for whites. I was curi­ous, as chil­dren are about any­thing for­bid­den, but nev­er dared to go. I under­stood my par­ents didn’t agree with the law, but it was the law, and argu­ing was not permitted.

Pho­to cred­it: Bill Robinson

I was still in high school when the city opened a larg­er park on the more pros­per­ous west side of town. From then on, Springs Park began to get less atten­tion. Every time I’ve gone back to Enid, I’ve vis­it­ed Springs Park, and it’s always made me a lit­tle sad. While the min­i­mum main­te­nance was per­formed, the pavil­ions were run down, the grass was not man­i­cured, and the trash not picked up fre­quent­ly. The last time I went, it was dif­fer­ent. I hadn’t been home in sev­er­al years and dread­ed to see how much the park had aged.

What a sur­prise! All the old swings, see­saws, and mer­ry-go-rounds had been replaced with mod­ern, safe play­ground equip­ment, shin­ing bright­ly. It was a week­day morn­ing, so only a few peo­ple were in the park, five small groups altogether.

Two of them were racial­ly diverse, black and white. My nephew told me that the park is now the site of the annu­al June­teenth par­ty, cel­e­brat­ed by the African Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ty as a com­mem­o­ra­tion of the day when news of the end of the Civ­il War reached Texas. It was about 100 years lat­er when Blacks were final­ly allowed to use the whole park.

I also learned that the Gay Pride cel­e­bra­tion is held in Springs Park. The Enid I grew up in didn’t have any open gays. The word hadn’t yet been pop­u­lar­ized and if used at all, it meant some­thing like ‘hap­pi­ly frol­ick­ing’. The polite term was “homo­sex­u­al,” but peo­ple rarely used polite terms when they whis­pered their mis­ap­plied stereo­types about ath­let­ic women and artis­tic men.

Once urban peo­ple thought small towns were roman­tic, and small town peo­ple thought big cities were glam­orous. Today, I’m afraid that has changed. Too many met­ro­pol­i­tans, like me, are inclined to think of the small-town dwellers as igno­rant and big­ot­ed, and often they, in turn, see our cities as sin­ful and jad­ed. I don’t know if that will change – I only know that my jour­ney home isn’t as far as it used to be.

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Bob­bie Kirkhart is a past pres­i­dent of the Athe­ist Alliance Inter­na­tion­al and of Athe­ists Unit­ed. She is a founder and past vice pres­i­dent of the Sec­u­lar Coali­tion for Amer­i­ca. She is a fre­quent con­trib­u­tor to U.S. freethought publications.