Develop Strategic Partnerships
Seeing African American walk in the Vicksburg National Military Park was rare. Seeing a mixed crowd of black and white walkers in the Vicksburg National Military Park was not always the case. My name is Linda Fondren, an African-American. They call me the veritable Pied Piper of physical fitness, and I'm also known throughout the city for my efforts to get people up off the couch and on the move. Our national park has been a huge part of the Shape Up Vicksburg initiative, and the way it came about may be instructive. When I started a walking program, I was asked point-blank by a former park superintendent, Michael Madell, “Why do so few African-Americans walk in the park?” I knew it was because the black community felt uncomfortable in areas that glorify the history of the Confederacy. I also told him truthfully that exercise is at the bottom of a long list of priorities for many African-Americans and that’s what I was trying to change. A central theme to the Vicksburg story is the city’s pooling of resources and leveraging of everything at its disposal to improve health. And yet, the largest parcel of open space—an undulating 1,700 acres with 12 miles of paths and 16 miles of roadway for biking—felt unwelcoming for the city’s majority African-American population. A turning point in the Civil War, the 47-day siege of Vicksburg in 1863 gave Union troops control of the vital Mississippi, leaving 19,233 dead and cutting off Confederate supply routes. Shape Up Vicksburg and the park teamed up to hash out ideas for bridging the racial divide that the park represented. Seven years ago, we came up with a walk through the park to mark Black History Month, promoting it as “Our shared history, our shared community, our shared health.” Rangers led a walking tour past the United States Colored Troops Monument, representing African- American soldiers who fought on both sides of the war, and the Vicksburg National Cemetery, which includes 7,000 black soldiers among the 17,000 veterans who are buried there. The reaction was “unbelievable. Some participants who had spent their whole lives in Vicksburg had never seen the monument or even knew that black soldiers were buried in the cemetery. We wanted to get everyone to view the monuments as art, the scenery as nature and the history as a narrative of restored self-respect and we wanted to get people to use the park for physical activity. The walks are now an annual event. The Walk with a Doc is also a walking event at the Vicksburg National Military Park. The walks give the community the opportunity to walk with physicians and pick their brains on health-related issues. Now the park embraces the community, and the community embraces the park.