“Senior Day” at the Chavis Park Carousel —by Jinny Batterson
A group of “golden agers” that I’m intermittently part of gets together about once a week to walk some of the parks and greenways in the Research Triangle area of North Carolina. Not long after I moved here, an older friend invited me to participate. On one of our most recent outings, we started in southern Raleigh and explored a greenway system headed upstream toward the downtown area—on an earlier jaunt, we’d followed the same network of pathways downstream. We were curious about its more urban direction. The trail branched several times. We weren’t always sure which way to turn, but figured we couldn’t get but so lost in this urban, fairly heavily traveled area. Besides, we never walked very far or very fast, so worst case we could retrace our steps and retrieve our cars from our starting point. After a mile or so, a couple of street crossings brought us to Chavis Park, a fairly extensive urban park near the campus of Shaw University, a historically black college.
As an import to North Carolina, I am still learning the twists and turns of its ethnic history. I found a poster at the park’s community center with some background on John Chavis, the Revolutionary-War era free black man for whom the park is named. I later filled in more detail via Internet: born in October, 1763, Chavis in childhood began work for a Virginia attorney whose law library he used to further his own education. During the Revolutionary War, Chavis served for three years as part of the Virginia Fifth Regiment. After the war, he married and later moved his family to New Jersey, where he gained admittance to the theological school of what later became Princeton University. Returning to Virginia, he graduated in 1799 from Liberty Hall Academy (later Washington and Lee University) and was licensed to preach in the Presbyterian church. Sometime in the early 19th century, he moved with his family to Raleigh, North Carolina. From 1808 until the early 1830’s, Chavis preached in Raleigh, and also ran an academy where he taught both white and black children, at first in integrated settings. As white racial attitudes hardened, he was obliged to use a separate schedule for students of each race, with lessons for the white children during the day, and lessons for black children in the evening. After the Nat Turner rebellion in Virginia in 1831, relations between whites and blacks deteriorated further, forcing Chavis to curtail some of his activities. He nonetheless became a more vocal and ardent proponent of the abolition of slavery. He died under somewhat mysterious circumstances in June, 1838.
Once I’d finished reading about Chavis and used the restrooms, I rejoined the rest of our group in exploring the park. A prominent feature is a restored early 20th century carousel, originally installed during the segregation era, and most recently renovated in 2013. We peered in the windows at the shining horses, benches, and painted scenes, rousing an attendant near the entryway. Ten of our group members paid the $1 entrance fee to enjoy the carousel. Despite somewhat creaky joints, each of us found an appropriate mount and got settled in for a ride. An organ played a jaunty tune as our steeds circled, moving up and down in rhythm with the music. I’m not sure, but I think we may have gotten a few extra turns before our rides were over.
As we were leaving, the attendant said that the carousel didn’t get as much use as it may have in previous generations—the MTV/hip-hop era moves at a faster pace, perhaps. I wish I had grandchildren in the area, and am plotting ways to have another excuse to ride and to bring others to an example of the merry-go-rounds that formed an especially merry part of my long-ago childhood. Carousel hours and prices are posted on Raleigh’s parks and recreation website: http://www.raleighnc.gov/parks/content/ParksRec/Articles/Parks/Chavis.html. Enjoy!