James A. Wilson was Instrumental in Building One of J-Town’s Most Popular Parks
Beth Wilder, Director Jeffersontown Historical Museum
James Augustus Wilson was born July 20, 1904 to James and Belle Wilson. The elder James Wilson worked as a butler to famed Courier-Journal editor Henry Watterson for nearly 30 years, and Belle also helped around the Watterson estate, when she managed to find time, while raising the younger James and his siblings.
James A. Wilson attended grade school in Jeffersontown, and graduated in 1922 from Central High School. He received his Bachelor of Arts degree in Education from Kentucky State College, then expanded his studies at the Hampton Institute in Virginia and the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.
After graduating college, he served as principal of Harrods Creek School for three years, then he served another 28 years on the faculty of Madison Junior High School, before finally moving to Central High School, where he served until his retirement. In all, he worked 44 years for the school system.
In 1928, he married Viola Robinson, and their marriage lasted 57 years. He was a member of St. Paul United Methodist Church in Jeffersontown, where he served many years as Sunday School Superintendent and teacher of the Adult Bible Class. Although Wilson had no children of his own, he loved young people and would often meet with them for Bible Study as well.
In the 1940s, segregation prevented black people from enjoying many of the amenities that the rest of the population took for granted – including having a designated open place to play. The point was driven home in 1946, when Wilson saw a child in a wagon forced off Watterson Trail into a ditch by a car. After learning that the child was not hurt, Wilson discovered the boy was playing in the street because there was nowhere else to go. At that point, Wilson determined to create a park where black children could safely play.
Wilson saw some unused property on Watterson Trail and thought it might make a good site for a park. As Chairman of the Jeffersontown Colored Recreation Committee, he drew up plans for the 29-acre park, then persuaded Parks Director Charlie Vettiner to support him in his endeavor. Wilson spent many hours in Fiscal Court meetings until county officials finally agreed to donate the land (which had once been part of the Jefferson County Poor Farm) to the park.
Wilson led efforts to clear the land and put in a baseball diamond, recreation equipment, lights and a concession stand. He also had plans to equip the grounds with horseshoe pits, badminton, tennis and volleyball courts, swings, see-saws and a sandbox. For more than 20 years, after leaving work, he would go directly to the park to cut the grass, manage the fields and prepare for games. Besides baseball and daily recreation, the park also hosted events such as old-fashioned wiener roasts, camps and picnics.
After segregation ended, the park began to decline somewhat as residents moved away and development began to take over in that area of town. In the 1950s, white people were already sharing the park, and by the 1970s, Skyview was referred to as a community park.
In the early 1970s, Wilson was still an active participant in discussions to upgrade the park. Although Jeffersontown Police Officer Larry Simpson had recently taken over the position as chairman of the County Advisory Committee on Skyview Park, Wilson continued to meet with the deputy superintendent of the Park Board, Al Lecomte, in order to discuss improvements to the park program. The committee hoped to expand the park with tennis courts, a football field, a mini-bike trail, and a “tot lot.” Of course, requests for such plans had to be made officially, and money provided, but at the time, a gravel parking lot was all that was actually scheduled to be built.
Aside from lack of funding, other problems plagued the park as well. A 1972 editorial bemoaned the fact that the park was not used to its full potential, stating that “in a day when racial barriers are legally down, it remains virtually a segregated area.”
Although Skyview Park was a county park, it was used almost exclusively by Jeffersontown residents, and county management was “not as closely associated with the park as it should be.” Added to that, the black people who customarily used the park were split along religious lines regarding how the advisory committee should interact with the county, causing a rift in the committee and an eventual loss of interest in what happened to the park. Since the park was surrounded by the City of Jeffersontown and used primarily by its residents, the suggestion was made that it should be put under the control of Jeffersontown, rather than Jefferson County.
In 1973, the park at the Jeffersontown Community Center on Taylorsville Road was given precedence over Skyview Park, and the bulk of the $20,000 allotted by the Jeffersontown Parks Commission for recreational facilities was to be spent there. Precisely $10,000 had been put into an escrow account for Skyview Park, where it was awaiting matching federal funds before any new action was taken at that park.
A 1974 Comprehensive Plan for Jeffersontown noted a major problem with Skyview Park: although it was the most accessible park in town, walking there could be dangerous. Sidewalks and bicycle paths from town to Skyview Park were highly recommended.
The 1990s saw a renewed interest in the park. In 1996, construction was completed on a $1.8 million baseball field complex to support the Jeffersontown Little League. By 2001, football fields had been added and work had begun on a pavilion with picnic tables and grills, new restroom facilities, and the expansion of Skyview’s parking lot. In 2006, plans were in place to create a walking and bike path that take residents right by Skyview Park, and in 2014, a new Splash Park opened there.
James Wilson, founder of Skyview Park, passed away in 1985. After his death, it was suggested that the park be memorialized as “James A. Wilson Park,” but the parks board director decided against that, because Mr. Wilson was the one who thought of the name “Skyview Park” to begin with, and they felt that he himself would have wanted the name to remain that. A memorial to James A. Wilson, noting his role in the formation of the park, was placed at the park entrance by the Metropolitan Park and Recreation Department in 1986.
In 1995, the park was briefly renamed Ruckriegel Municipal Park by a vote of the City Council, due to all the renewed activity instigated by Mayor Daniel Ruckriegel at the time. A month later, after much public outcry on behalf of the importance of James A. Wilson to the creation of the park, the name “Skyview Park” was restored.
The park continues to flourish, as it regularly plays host to championship ball games and fills the need for people to have a clean, open space to congregate for fun and recreation. Skyview Park is a dream fulfilled for Mr. James A. Wilson – a place originally designed to serve the black youth of the area, but which has become a focal setting for all people to gather.
According to his obituary, “Because of his love for the people, young and old, he was always trying to improve their standards, whether it was in the church or the community.” Our community owes a great deal of thanks to Mr. James A. Wilson for working so hard to make his vision a reality.