Franklin Park’s Glory Days as a Columbus Bastion of Black Joy

This bygone era of cars, congas, bell bottoms and more lives on in the memories of its participants—and in the photography of Steve Harrison.

Chris Bournea
“We would stand on the side of the hill chitchatting and socializing. We weren’t into drugs or drinking. There were folks driving through every Sunday. It was just a nice, social time.” 

— Jerry Saunders Sr., CEO of the Africentric Personal Development Shop and a former Columbus Recreation and Parks commissioner

It was a fashion show and a car show. It was a place for culture and music and celebration. It was a bastion of Black pride, joy and fellowship, and there was nothing else quite like it in Columbus. 

In the late 1960s through the 1970s, Franklin Park was a community gathering place for African Americans every Sunday afternoon, spring through fall. Those who frequented the park during this time describe an atmosphere similar to the classic George Lucas film “American Graffiti”—but with afros, hot pants and an all-Black cast. 

Just east of Downtown in the heart of the city’s historic Black enclave, the 100-acre green space felt more welcoming to Black people than other city parks, such as Schiller in German Village or Whetstone in Clintonville. De facto segregation remained a reality of life in Columbus during this period, and when Black folks gathered in Franklin Park, they weren’t treated like intruders, as they would be elsewhere in the city. “We were a self-contained community,” says Bettye Stull, a recreation leader with the Columbus Recreation and Parks Department in the ’60s and ’70s. “We didn’t hardly go outside of the community for anything. We looked upon it as our park.” 

What’s more, police didn’t interfere in the fun. Officers might break up smatterings of Black folks elsewhere in the city, but the rules were different for Franklin Park. “Black folks pretty much had the run of the park,” says William Richardson, a retired general contractor. “They just let us have it.” 

The glory days began to fade in the late 1970s. The police presence in the park became more aggressive when Black vendors began selling items such as food, eight-track tapes and photos. Then the city of Columbus installed roadblocks in the park to cut down on the number of cars. Broader demographic trends were at play, too, as more Black folks moved away from the Near East Side. But the death knell may have been AmeriFlora, the 1992 Franklin Park Conservatory horticulture exhibition held in honor of the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ arrival in North America. Parkgoers say that when the city began shutting down parts of Franklin Park in the ’80s to prepare for AmeriFlora, conflicts arose over whether African Americans would have any say-so in the future of the park. “We should have known it wasn’t going to last forever,” says Raleigh Randolph, a retired designer, East High School alumnus and the son of the well-known Columbus band leader of the same name. “We were not surprised when it was taken away from us.” 

Today, this bygone era lives on in the memories of its participants. It also lives on in the photography of Steve Harrison, who as a budding young shutterbug in the late ’60s and early ’70s would hang out in the park with his friends and family and snap shots. In the following pages, images from the personal archives of Harrison (who went on to have a long career as a professional photographer, working for six governors) capture the bliss, energy and style of this largely forgotten chapter in Columbus history—one that few people are aware of outside of the Black community. 

“It was a happy time for African Americans,” says Vonzell Johnson, a retired boxer who now works in security management. “They went to the park to have a good time—nothing but to have a good time. And we looked forward to that. Now there’s nothing like that to make African Americans feel that way. And it’s unfortunate.”

This story was published in the May 2021 edition of Columbus Monthlya special issue dedicated to exploring the experiences of Black people in Central Ohio. The issue is available on newsstands through May.