BARTOW COUNTY, Ga. -- The Benham family of northwest Georgia has made history by breaking down barriers, which helped open up new opportunities for the African-American community.
This always bring back good memories for me up here. We used to call it the beach,” Robert Benham said of George Washington Carver Park in Bartow County, Georgia. “It was a place where people of color could feel free.”
Free, however, during a time of segregation. Robert Benham’s father was the superintendent at George Washington Carver Park, Georgia’s first state park for African Americans.
“It’s where my mom and dad were in business and they were people who really believed in the American dream,” Benham said.
Benham said he learned valuable life lessons while water skiing the section of Lake Allatoona in Acworth, Georgia.
“Being the smallest person, I was always atop of the pyramid,” he said. “The lesson I learned then was that sometimes you can do things perfectly and still fail at it.”
Benham says those experiences helped him become the first African American to serve on the Supreme Court of Georgia.
There was one incident, however, that impacted his life more than others: when he was denied using the front door at the park’s main office.
“My dad stepped up and said, ‘this is my son, he can go in anybody’s front door and if you ever step in his way that will be the last step you make,’” Benham said.
That decision would cost Benham’s father his job, but would prove to be a turning point in both of their lives.
“He said, ‘there’s some things you have to do be a man,’” Benham said of his father. “’And if you can’t stand up for your children, what can you stand up for?’”
While Benham describes the waters at George Washington Carver Park as almost spiritual. He says they also had a huge impact physically. During his the Benham family’s time there, this section of the lake was the only lake in northwest Georgia where African Americans were allowed to swim.
“For some people this was the first time they had an opportunity to swim because they couldn’t swim in the various facilities in town,” Benham said.
In an area where Confederate flags still fly today, George Washington Carver Park is now open to everyone while Benham is now retired as a judge.
Looking back on the past, he believes the recreation area has helped with the future of race relations.
“If they work on the things that they have in common than the things that separate them will be less significant,” Benham said.