The Morristown community braved freezing conditions on Saturday to celebrate the future – and commemorate its past.
With the cutting of a red and black ribbon, the Salute to Heritage Park Grand Opening Celebration began in earnest in front of replicas of the colonnades which attached two buildings of the school.
The 52-acre plot on North James Street was the former home for Morristown College, which served as a two-year educational institution for African-Americans for over a century before closing its doors in the 1990s.
The color of the ribbon was appropriate because it represented the colors of the Red Knights, the school’s basketball team.
“We believe a place that is a deeply historical site needed to be in the hands of the people (of Morristown) – and now we have it,” Morristown Mayor Gary Chesney said. “Today, you’re going to see the beginning of the building of the first part of this park.”
Saturday’s opening is the first phase of a continuing development project of the park that is expected to last 25 years. The process to build the park was not an easy one.
“We want to call on the future leaders of Morristown and the community to continue what we’re doing to help the park become fully-created,” Chesney said.
The city council mulled over plans for the property, while interest from private developers sat on the desk of Morristown Area Chamber of Commerce President Marshall Ramsey.
“We saw a lot of private developers put plans on my desk – and I was scared,” Ramsey said. “It was important to keep this land in the community.”
Founded in 1881 in an area that served as a church, a slave market and a hospital for Union and Confederate soldiers during the Civil War, Morristown College was created to teach freed slaves to read and write. Five generations of African-Americans from throughout the country were educated at the school and graduated generations of African-American leaders, including ministers, college presidents, educators, businessmen, scientists, educators, attorneys, artists, actors and civil rights activists.
“Education wasn’t considered important for African-Americans back then, so Morristown College was important to the area,” Chesney said.
A 27-year-old United Methodist minister from New Jersey, Dr. Judson Hill moved from Chattanooga to get the school running. Over the next 50 years, Hill was able to raise money to build the school and create educational programs for trades such as masonry and woodworking. Many of the buildings on the campus were built by students.
By the time Hill died in 1931, millions of dollars were raised to make Morristown College a viable part of the community. Hill’s descendants were in attendance at the celebration, as were alumni of the college.
Dr. Carlton Brown, a Morristown College graduate, and former dean of students at the college, also honored Professor Andrew Fulton, who, as a young slave, was sold on the same site along with his mother in 1861 for $1,166. Upon graduating from Morristown College in 1887, Fulton taught at the school for 45 years before his death in 1932. Fulton’s great-grandchildren were also in attendance at the event.
Along with Chesney and the Chamber of Commerce, members of the Morristown City Council, District 10 Rep. Rick Eldridge, R-Morristown, and a representative for U.S. Representative Phil Roe were in attendance.
The celebration kicked off with the presentation of colors and the honoring of U.S. military veterans by children from All Saints Episcopal School, who sang the fight songs of all five branches of the military.
Ramsey said most communities the size of Morristown don’t have a park the size of what Heritage Park is expected to be. The population of the city is represented by people from 14 countries, and this is the kind of mix he said makes Morristown what it is.
“I would like the community to continue to embrace the diversity this city has,” Ramsey said. “We need to learn from our past, and how important Heritage Park is to this area.”