5 Star Stories: T.O. Fuller State Park, the green gem of the Mid-South

Updated: Apr. 27, 2021 at 9:44 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Looking for an open place to parade your pooch, catch summer shade or take a ride down a playground slide?

Just a hop, skip and a jump from Downtown Memphis is a hidden gem where you can do that and more, the T.O. Fuller State Park.

The Mid-South marvel is 1,138 acres of green space where wildlife and people meet, just south of McKellar Lake.

“Most of our state parks are in rural areas, whereas T.O. Fuller is actually in the city,” Park Manager, Ranger Jimmy Warren pointed out.

T.O. Fuller is where school and church groups play, be it on a baseball diamond, in a meeting space or at a picnic pavilion.

It’s where turtles meander, beavers build and amphibians abound.

Warren has a special connection to this space.

“I guess I’m sort of partial because I grew up in this area,” he revealed.

The retired Memphis police officer and Mitchell High School graduate says it was the only park he ever visited as a child every Sunday after church. That’s because this green gem on the edge of South Memphis has a history.

“It was originally established in the 30s as a park designated for negroes,” he explained. “It was named after T. O. Fuller, Thomas Oscar, who was an educator, legislator, activist.”

Fuller was also Reverend of First Baptist Church on Beale, a congregation of freed slaves, which housed Ida B. Wells’ civil rights newspaper. Reverend Fuller, who taught himself how to read, became principal of Howe Institute, which merged with Owen College to eventually became LeMoyne-Owen College.

Warren says the attraction was once a celebrated haven for African American golfers.

“I remember the 18-hole golf course. I remember guys who would come out and play golf. Me as a caddy seeing such guys as Lee Elder, Eddie Payton, Walter Payton’s brother, who played professional football and a bunch of other notable African Americans,” Warren recalled.

The old golf course is now the Wildlife Habitat Area with native grass for animal habitation like deer and wild turkeys.

“We have really cool animals here. We have coyotes and bobcats. I know we have at least three that call it their home,” said Park Ranger Decoda Muller.

Miller and Park Ranger Jessica Gossett help Warren protect people from nature and nature from people.

“We have a lot of wetlands, and so all of those wetlands are places where the aquifer recharges, so just things like that so we actually actively protect what water source for the city is, as well as the fact that the trees give off clean air that we can breathe,” added Gossett.

Rangers educate children with live animals.

“This is Sunny, Sunny is a corn snake,” said Gossett as she held the five-foot snake. “Sonny’s head is kind of slender, whereas a venomous snake; because of those sacks for the venom; has a chunky kind of look.”

“This is Red, the Red-tailed Hawk,” added Muller. “He can’t fly so he is an educational bird. He is not able to be rehabilitated.”

There’s the Interpretive Center where park storyteller, “Mother Wit,” entertains children.

“I try to tell stories about wildlife and the things here. Just a way to connect to the young people, but I found out the adults like it too,” said Mother Wit.

That’s not all. Tennis anyone?

“Tennis courts, basketball courts, a five-and-a-half-mile trail, which is basically one of the hardest trails I’ve ever walked through, a 45-slot campground for your RVs, we have an open-camp area where you can pitch tents,” Warren explained about more of the park’s amenities.

There’s also the Native American burial ground discovered during construction.

“There was a burial ground in the initial location where they tried to build the pool,” said Warren.

The park decided to put the pool somewhere else.

These days, they’re planting trees, saving turtles and partnering with Memphis Storm Water to teach kids the importance of our waterways, the University of Memphis Biodiversity Program to research our ecosystem and Christian Brothers University’s duck research program.

The stewards of this green expanse have strong feelings about it.

“People need to know this place here,” said Ranger Muller.

“I do hope that they will learn more about taking care of the animals, taking care of Mother Nature, just enjoying what we have in our nature. We get so citified with all the building and the lack of trees and lack of animals,” said Mother Wit.

“You can enjoy the openness of nature just by coming down the road a few blocks from the city,” added Warren.

T.O. Fuller State Park always has seasonal events and activities. To get their calendar and download the park app, click HERE.

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