Historically, many Black communities have faced disparities in access to recreational facilities and resources. In Camden, South Carolina, the Knights Hill Historic Preservation Board is doing something about that with the help of their community and funders like Wholespire.
In 1900, Knights Hill Park was deeded to a group of community organizers in the Knights Hill community, a residential area with their own unique character and community dynamics. The park became a centralized location for community events, celebrations, family gatherings, and outdoor recreation. It was a time when families and neighbors cherished fellowship by gathering outdoors to enjoy each other, share stories, exchange ideas, escape their problems, laugh, and play outside.
Over the years, Knights Hill Park was in disarray due to a lack of maintenance and a misunderstanding about who was responsible for the upkeep of the park. The Knights Hill community wanted something to be done about their neighborhood retreat. They wanted a safe place for seniors and youth to engage in physical activity and fellowship but couldn’t understand why their requests for maintenance were not being heard by the county.
Returning to where it all began
Bill Robinson is a descendant of the Knights Hill community who has the skills and knowledge to help get the park revitalization project going. His parents were born and raised there, and he visited Knights Hill on many occasions during his childhood. Bill eventually returned to Camden to help his sister make improvements to his father’s house following his death.
“People noticed that I was in the community and because my parents are both originally from this community, they knew me from years of coming down from Long Island where I grew up. They asked me to attend a meeting last year, which happened to be a board meeting, and raise some funds to do some upgrades to the park,” said Robinson.
The group explained to Robinson that they had been asking Kershaw County Parks and Recreation for some upgrades for years, and they were wondering why there was no response. Because he has experience as a fundraising and non-profit consultant, Robinson did some research and uncovered a couple of things. First, the original group lost its standing with the state as a non-profit due to some administrative errors. Most importantly, there was an agreement with the Parks and Recreation Department to list the park as part of the county park service and they would do what they could to help, but the agreement did not include maintenance of the park.
Robinson devoted time to correcting the non-profit status and the group renamed themselves to Knights Hill Historic Preservation Board. He also needed to start the process of renegotiating the agreement with the county, but the Board had one more request. They asked him to be their executive director, but they couldn’t pay him.
“They proposed for any funds that I raise to include an administrator fee for me, and I said sure. It was important to me because for me it was full circle. This was a part of the legacy of my family on both sides who grew up in this community, went to school in this community and were active in this park in this community. So, for me, it was like this is the least I could do. And now that both my parents are gone, I could provide this service and keep this legacy going. That’s how it all began,” said Robinson.
Building credibility through awareness and relationships
While waiting for their non-profit application to be approved, Robinson continued doing more groundwork to get the organization and their park improvement project positioned for success. He connected with some key partners like Kershaw County Parks and Recreation to reintroduce them to Knights Hill Park and revisit the initial agreement.
“We engaged in a two-pronged approach. One, to get outside funding to prove to the county that we could raise the funds and fix the park up whether they’re involved or not and use that as leverage for their part of the agreement. This is a 50-year agreement and I think we’re in year 30 of this agreement. So, I was happy to find out literally about six months ago that we were actually owners of the park. So that just opened up a whole new thing,” said Robinson.
Robinson says the relationship with parks and recreation has “been a great partnership ever since late last year and we’re continuing to build on that now.” The Wholespire HEAL Mini-grant proved to parks and recreation that they were serious about revitalizing the park. They’ve been able to rely on the department for help with maintaining the grass, tree and debris removal and other high-maintenance requests.
Media advocacy and community engagement are two essential components of public awareness campaigns. Each plays a crucial role in shaping public opinion, influencing policy, and mobilizing support. Robinson understood this and went straight to The Chronicle-Independent newspaper.
“I invited the editor of the paper out to the park to show him what we intended to do. I literally walked the park with him, opened up the shelter building, let him know that this is who we were and what we planned to do. He did a beautiful 2-page article about the park, the history and our goals for the park.”
Awareness in the form of media coverage helped ramp up Robinson’s ability to advocate for their park improvement efforts and prove that Knights Hill Historic Preservation Board is a valid and credible organization. Introducing himself and the organization at council meetings and to individuals after the meetings became easier, allowing for better conversation and even funding opportunities.
Identifying the first project with community feedback
Knights Hill community members of all ages have been involved in the park’s revitalizing efforts from the beginning. They were included in meetings and asked to provide feedback on their wants and needs. The seniors and youth set the phases of the overall project.
“Usually, our meetings were held outside underneath the shelter building, so as people were coming to the park – there’s a swing area, the playground area, as well as the basketball court and then a baseball field in between all of that — they would watch us meet once a month and depending on what was happening, we just pulled the kids over and said ‘Look you know this is what we’re doing. What do you all want to see first?’ We thought as adults that that would be a great way to engage young people. Offer them something and then we can engage them in future plans down the road.”
“So, they were with us every step of the way, designing the court, picking out the colors for the court and they just could not wait as we were going through the process. The court was in progress and the kids were still playing on it. So, there were times when we had to literally work around the kids. ‘Look, kids, please play on this side of the court so we can get the work done on this’ and the other side that we wanted to do for any particular day.”
Measuring the success of a basketball court
It’s easy for Robinson to see the benefits of revitalizing the basketball court and it puts a smile on his face. He says that not a day goes by that he doesn’t see people playing basketball. There’s a new respect for the court – litter is decreasing. And during a recent May Day community event, the court was particularly exciting.
“We hadn’t finished painting the court, but the kids didn’t care. They’re playing three-on-three. Then it was five-on-five. Then the teens were waiting to play. The girls had the courts for a while, and they were doing their thing and it was just…it was beautiful to watch.”
Another successful indicator is when young people from outside of the Knights Hill and Camden communities find out about a great basketball court.
“During college spring break earlier this year, I was out doing something on the court and there were all kinds of kids here. And the interesting thing is, there were more white kids there than I had seen in a long time. So, I just let them play, and I was doing my thing on the other side of the court. When I got finished, I asked them, ‘Where are you guys from?’ Three of them were Clemson students, one was from Coastal Carolina and another one was from USC. They had gotten together and driven from Lugoff because they had heard about the Knights Hill basketball court. They said, ‘Man, this is gonna be a cool court when you get finished. We can’t wait to come back after the school year is over.’ We saw some of those people during the summer come back and play basketball.”
Looking forward to a healthier future
The stars aligned for the Knights Hill Historic Preservation Board. Starting from scratch is no easy task for a large project like revitalizing an entire park. The organization has found that when you engage with community members and value youth feedback and participation, the chances of getting things done and being successful on many levels can be achieved.
But they’re not done yet. The seniors want a walking trail for safe physical activity. Then, there’s the baseball diamond, lights, shelter improvements, a potential community center, and yes, a youth employment program.
The Knights Hill community values its cultural heritage and has a huge sense of pride. They want their roots to grow deeper and stronger. “And that’s more than anything for me. That’s what I want to happen… something to be proud of…to see young people and elderly folks come to this park and just enjoy the stories that they bring.”
Visit the Knights Hill Historic Preservation Board Facebook page to keep with up with their progress.