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A place to gather together: New park honors owner of integrated ‘Tea Room’

Vivienne Jackson, left, and Mayor David Smith attend the dedication ceremony of the new Ruth Jackson Memorial Park where the Ruth's Tea Room used to stand, in Winchester, Va., Thursday, Oct. 15, 2020. Ruth and Boyd Jackson opened Ruth's Tea Room at the corner of South Kent and East Cecil streets in 1925, in Winchester. Their daughter, Vivienne Jackson, now 94, took over the restaurant in 1983. The Tea Room was a restaurant where Black and white people socialized together in the days of segregation. (Jeff Taylor/The Winchester Star via AP)

WINCHESTER, Va. — Like most Southern towns in the 1960s, Winchester was racially segregated. But there was one place in the city where skin color didn’t matter, where people from all races could hang out together without feeling society’s pressure to keep Blacks and whites apart.

That place was Ruth’s Tea Room at the corner of South Kent and East Cecil streets.

Ruth and Boyd Jackson opened Ruth’s Tea Room at 128 E. Cecil St. in 1925. Their daughter, Vivienne Jackson, took over the restaurant in 1983, eventually converting it into a community grocery store before closing the business in 2005. The vacant building was demolished in September 2008, leaving behind an empty lot that Winchester later decided to convert into a community park.

Ruth Jackson Memorial Park was formerly dedicated on Oct. 15 during a ceremony that drew about 50 people, ranging from Winchester’s top political leaders to a former employee of Ruth’s Tea Room.

“I was very diligent because I enjoyed the $4 a week that I made,” Brian Cook recalled. “They would give me four ones ($1 bills) and I would take them next door and get all the change so I could have something jingling in my pocket.

Former Winchester, Va. NAACP president Gwen Walker, right, speaks about Winchester history during the dedication ceremony for the new Ruth Jackson Memorial Park at South Kent and East Cecil Streets where Ruth's Tea Room used to stand in Winchester, Va., Thursday, Oct. 15, 2020. Ruth and Boyd Jackson opened Ruth's Tea Room in 1925, in Winchester. Their daughter, Vivienne Jackson, now 94, who attended the ceremony today took over the restaurant in 1983. The Tea Room was a restaurant where Black and white people socialized together in the days of segregation. (Jeff Taylor/The Winchester Star via AP)

“I’ve always loved that family,” Cook said of the Jacksons. “They were always good to my family.”

As he said that, Cook looked directly at 94-year-old Vivienne Jackson, who was among those in attendance at the Oct. 15 ceremony.

“It’s amazing to me, and I know it would make her feel very good,” Vivienne Jackson said about the opening of a park named in memory of her mother. “My parents gave so much of themselves. They loved this place.”

Winchester historian Timothy Youmans, who was instrumental in the creation of Ruth Jackson Memorial Park, said it will become a key location for people who walk, jog or bike the city’s Green Circle recreational trail.

“This will be an important stop, particularly in terms of (getting a) better understanding of the cultural history of Winchester,” Youmans said. “There’s so much history here yet to be told.”

Winchester Mayor David Smith, who served as emcee for the dedication ceremony, said: “Ruth’s Tea Room was one of those places during segregation where people of all walks of life and all colors came together.”

Smith, who is Winchester’s first Black mayor, said he is grateful the city is giving long-overdue recognition to the African Americans who helped shape the community. He noted several other prominent Blacks who called Winchester home over the past two centuries, including Negro League baseball standout Spottswood Poles and jazz legend John Kirby

Gwen Walker, former president of the Winchester chapter of the NAACP, said it’s great that the accomplishments of the city’s Black community are now being accepted as a critical component of Winchester’s ongoing success.

“African American history is your history,” Walker said. “Your history is my history.”

She added that Ruth’s Tea Room was known to Black people far beyond Winchester thanks to its inclusion in the “Green Book,” an annual travel guide for African Americans that highlighted road-trip destinations across the country.

Local artist Jane Casper recalled how she parked across the street from Ruth’s Tea Room in the 1960s and painted a portrait of the business while seated in her car. That painting is now featured on an informational marker located within Ruth Jackson Memorial Park.

“I had the canvas on my steering wheel, and I tried to work out all that perspective and get it right,” Casper said. “It took me several days parked there until I finally got it.”

Winchester Parks and Recreation Advisory Board President Bill Stewart said Ruth Jackson Memorial Park is very special to him and his fellow board members.

“This dedication is a highlight of the board’s work,” Stewart said. “Thank you for coming out, and I hope you’ll come back and enjoy this beautiful park.”

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