Ricky Wall wasn’t sure he’d ever see the day when John Chavis Memorial Park would be open to the public — it has been under renovation for almost two years. But Saturday morning, he watched as more than 100 people gathered to celebrate the park’s grand reopening.
Wall — a Raleigh resident who grew up in Chavis Heights — spent his childhood playing football and basketball in the historic park. He said he spent most days after school at the park with friends who lived nearby.
“This was our other home,” he said. “This place saved my life.”
The renovated Chavis Park now boasts a two-story community center, a plaza, a splash pad and a playground. Saturday morning, children ran through sprinklers on the splash pad and climbed jungle gyms on the playground. Performers in colorful costumes and stilts made balloon animals. The shrieks and laughter of children combined with music that ranged from jazz trumpet to classical harp.
Irika Elliott, another Raleigh resident who grew up using the park, attended the celebration with her children and grandchildren. “Seeing this right here going on, and the kids enjoying themselves, I’m just so happy,” she said as she gestured toward her grandchildren splashing in the water.
Community members started advocating for improvements to the park in the mid-2000s, and the $18 million renovation was funded in 2014 through a parks bond. Throughout the construction process, some people criticized the city for delays.
“It is a change many years late, but better late than never,” Wall said.
When Chavis Park was built in 1937, it was the only park that Black people could use in then-segregated Raleigh. At the time, Black Americans from across the Southeast traveled to the park for its Olympic-sized pool and amusement rides. In 2016, Chavis Park was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
The park is named for John Chavis, a free Black educator, minister, and Revolutionary War soldier who opened a school in Raleigh. Several descendants of Chavis were among the crowd on Saturday, as were several elected officials.
The completed renovation is the result of the combined efforts of many people and groups, said Raleigh City Council Member Corey Branch.
“The opening is the culmination of a lot of community input and engagement coming to fruition,” Branch said. “It’s been a long road here, a lot of meetings, a lot of conversations, some give and some take. But we’re here to honor a community and a park that has been so dear to not just Raleigh, but North Carolina and the East Coast.”
Although once a popular tourist destination, Chavis Park fell into disrepair over the years, said Carol Love, who serves on the Raleigh Parks, Recreation and Greenway Advisory Committee.
“Originally it was funded by the federal government, then it was turned over to the state, then to the city. And the city didn’t maintain it as well,” Love said. “Now we’re hoping that it has been revived, and that people will come from near and far to visit.”
Love, who attended nearby Shaw University in the 1960s, recalled playing tennis and going to school dances at the park. “I have a long history here, since I was 18, and now I’m 74,” she said.
The Raleigh City Council is considering another parks bond in the next municipal election that could fund an aquatic center for the park. “Years ago, this park had an Olympic-sized pool,” Branch said. “To bring back some of the amenities that used to exist would be phenomenal.”
But while both residents and elected officials expressed hopes for further improvements in the future, the air on Saturday morning was decidedly celebratory.
“Today is humbling and exciting,” said park director Grady Bussey. “And we’ll make sure that we do our job. And our job is to not only pay homage to what this place looked like, and what this place was, but pay homage to where we’re going in the future.”