On September 16, Gahanna’s very first historical marker was unveiled and dedicated in the City’s oldest and most beloved park.
The marker, located in Friendship Park, commemorates and recognizes a significant, but largely unknown, piece of the City’s history. Before the park came into existence, the Big Walnut Country Club – one of the Nation’s first for members of the Black community – stood on that land.
Founded in the 1920s by a number of civic leaders, the Big Walnut Country Club was a social and recreational hub for nearly 40 years. One of the Club’s founders was Nimrod Booker Allen, who also was a founder of the Columbus Urban League. The Club served as a place for members of the Black community to socialize, hold conferences, and have recreational opportunities during the time of segregation. It included a golf course and a clubhouse, where it hosted beauty pageants and high-profile politicians who stopped there to speak. The Club ceased operations in the 1960s.
“Our collective memories and stories are present in all that we do,” said Reita Smith, who once won a beauty pageant at the Club. “The Big Walnut Country Club’s creation inspires us to remember the founders’ resilience, success, relationships, struggles, optimism, spirituality and dreams for us all.”
The historical marker at the former site of the Club was sanctioned by the Ohio History Connection and was one of multiple locations that were part of Ohio Open Doors, an event created by the History Connection to celebrate the State’s architecture and history. The marker itself is the result of years of collaborative work by many in the Gahanna community.
The genesis of this project began more than a decade ago when Christy Evans, a longtime Gahanna resident, was tasked by the Gahanna Historical Society to research the Club’s history. Her work led her to connect with Smith and many others, who provided personal stories and details about the Club. Evans’ research later was expanded under the administration of former Mayor Tom Kneeland. Based on this collective research, the Vision Committee for The Big Walnut Country Club Memorial Project was formed, led by Kevin Dengel and Tom Gregory. The BWCC Vision Committee applied for the historical marker. Support for the application and the marker was provided by the City of Gahanna, the Gahanna Parks & Recreation Foundation, the Gahanna Historical Society, the Gahanna Area Arts Council, the Ohio History Connection and Mifflin Township.
“The African American story in the United States includes both tragedy and triumph,” said Johnel Amerson, a member of the BWCC Vision Committee. “Through slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, redlining, and countless confinements, our community has continued to find a way to overcome obstacles, have joy, celebrate life, and keep a sense of belonging. Exposing stories like this keeps alive the spirit of resiliency and reminds us all that we reap the fruits of the trees that were planted long before us. This project is so inspiring.”
Dwight Carter, a former principal of Gahanna Lincoln High School, also is a member of the BWCC Vision Committee.
“What I love most is that this story includes the narrative of those in the Black community who were accomplished,” he said. “It reminds me of the quote ‘we are our ancestors’ wildest dreams.’ I am sure, knowing that this location would one day become a historical marker had to be beyond what they ever could have imagined.”
Dozens of members of the community attended the dedication.
“The City of Gahanna prides itself on being a diverse and welcoming community,” said Gahanna Mayor Laurie Jadwin. “The Big Walnut Country Club was a significant establishment for Gahanna, the region and the State. This historical marker will help generations to come understand what it meant, and what it continues to mean, for the community.”
Among those in attendance at the ceremony was Nana Watson, President of the NAACP Columbus Branch.
“We don’t want Black history to be lost,” Watson said. “The Big Walnut Country Club needs to be celebrated and acknowledged. We salute Gahanna for valuing and appreciating diversity and inclusion.”