From the setting for a soulful Otis Redding show to the earnest learning environment of an early 20th century classroom, Selden Park has long been at the heart of the African American experience in the Golden Isles.
It is wedged between two cemeteries, on a stretch of road just north of downtown Brunswick that does not know if it is the end of Newcastle Street or the start of U.S. Highway 341. Today it is a county park enjoyed by all, but it still holds a special place for many in the local black community. When the laws of Jim Crowe and segregation prevented them from going elsewhere for higher learning, entertainment or recreation, there was this place.
“Selden Park was the artery that circulated heritage, culture, education and recreation throughout the communities of Black Americans of Brunswick, Georgia,” according to the Genoa Martin Friends of Selden Park website (http://friendsofseldenpark.weebly.com/).
Folks can get a glimpse of where it all began at the entrance to the Glynn County Park, located directly across from 4th Street between Palmetto and Greenwood cemeteries. The cozy wood frame structure that sits off to the right of park’s main road was once the headmaster’s cottage for Selden Normal School and Technical Institute, established in 1903.
And just who was Selden anyway? Perhaps more important, who was the Rev. Samuel G. Dent Sr.? Who was Miss Carrie E. Bemus? Who was Mr. Charles A. Shaw? Who was Genoa Martin?
Let us start with the Rev. Dent. Samuel George Dent Sr. was born on Evelyn Plantation in northern Glynn County, most likely in 1863, according to family history. However short-lived, Dent was born into slavery just before the outcome of the Civil War in 1865 effectively ended that wretched institution in the South.
Whatever his circumstances at birth, Dent went on to attend Moorehouse College in Atlanta. He also would father 12 children, leaving behind a vast family tree that stretches to this day from Baltimore to at least Colorado, I have since learned. (More about those Dents at a later date.) In the early 1890s, Dent was making plans to establish a junior college to help blacks back home in Glynn County rise above their circumstances.
Dent presented his plans to Miss Carrie E. Bemus, a white teacher at Morehouse who was originally from upstate New York. A teacher of more than 10 years at Moorehouse, Bemus committed herself wholeheartedly to Dent’s dream.
Dent and several community leaders and educators initially met at First African Baptist Church on Amherst Street in Brunswick to formulate plans for the school. Among those present was Charles A. Shaw, co-owner of a barber shop in Brunswick and a leader in the black business community. Dent was elected chairman of the new school’s board of directors. Shaw was elected to the board. His two sons, Charles and William Shaw, were among the school’s first students.
The school opened in October 1903 in a building at H and Wolfe street, possibly an old saloon, according to Gullah Geechee Heritage in the Golden Isles, a new book out by Amy Lotson and Patrick Holladay.
The school outgrew its humble beginning within the year, and leaders of the institute set their sights on 16 acres at the present-day sight of the park. Ever dedicated, Miss Bemus put up her own savings toward purchase of the land.
But they would need more money to meet institute’s growing demands. That is where the name Selden comes from. E.P. Selden made it big in the Pennsylvania steel industry, but he had a humanitarian bent. More so his brother, Dr. Charles Selden, a medical missionary to China. Miss Bemus had the ear of both men, going back to her early teaching days up north.
The Seldens ponied up the money for “buildings and grounds construction,” according to Gullah Geechee Heritage in the Golden Isles. Dr. Charles Selden was on hand for the grand opening. Thus began Selden Normal and Technical Institute.
Miss Bemus was the school’s first instructor and later served as a headmaster. Frankie Williams of Fish Univeristy, Ella Porter-Bohannon of Western College and Maggie Rogers of Spellman College also were among the faculty. The curriculum included basic reading and writing, teaching, agriculture, dress-making, business, domestic science and carpentry, among other pursuits. Students paid a small tuition, and also donated time to maintaining the campus and tending the vegetable garden that helped feed and instruct them.
“The Selden Normal and Industrial Institute was considered one of the finest black educational facilities during the early twentieth century,” according to Gullah Geechee in the Golden Isles.
The school operated on the site until 1933, when it merged to become the Gillespie-Selden Institute in Cordelle. That school operated until 1956, drawing students from as far as New York and environs.
But the site of the old school in Glynn County remained a gathering spot for the local African American community for generations to come. In 1950, during the still-segregated era, Selden became an official park and recreation center for blacks. Genoa Martin was the park director for 34 years, from its inception up until 1984. Lifeguard Homer Knight taught several thousand local children how to swim at the park’s pool over the years.
But it was not all picnics and pool parties around there. Selden Park’s multipurpose gymnasium and auditorium was a regular stop on the legendary Chitlin’ Circuit, a network of venues throughout the segregated Deep South that featured some of the most smoking-hot black rhythm and blues performers of all time. Dig it, y’all: Cab Calloway, James Brown, Junior Walker, Otis Redding, Ruth Brown, Sam Cooke, Joe Tex and Al Green all played at Selden Park. Chitlin Circuit comedy queen Moms Mabley performed there, as did gospel greats such as Shirley Ceasar.
That building was demolished in 2007 when the county built a new and expanded gym and multipurpose structure. From pickup Sunday soccer games to barbecues and family reunions, Selden Park remains to this day a vibrant part of the Golden Isles community. I am affiliated with a multicultural group that has a fine time there each year during its Christmas holiday banquet at Selden Park.
The Coastal African American Historic Preservation Commission continues to meet in the old Selden Institute headmaster’s cottage. Brunswick native Jeff Mangrum lives in Syracuse, N.Y., nowadays, but a stop at Selden Park is always a must when he is back in town.
“Selden Park means love, family , and friends,” he wrote on the Friends of Selden Park’s webpage. “I have so many lovely memories of special times spent at that park. And whenever I’m home visiting, I make sure I drive through Selden.”