Beckley Mayor Rob Rappold announced a "new day" in Beckley — and a new name for an iconic landmark that was once a private club that discriminated against black citizens and others.
"Historic Black Knight Municipal Park," once "Black Knight Country Club," will have a name that shows Beckley's unity, Rappold said Thursday.
"It's a new day," Rappold said. "This is a true opportunity to start anew, as a united city. It is, truly, a new day for Beckley."
Rappold notified Beckley Common Council members of the decision Thursday afternoon. Council will soon be hosting workshops to approve a new name, he said, and dates will be announced later.
The mayor's original vision for turning the grounds into a public park was so that everyone in Beckley, along with visitors, could enjoy what was once a playground for those who could afford membership, he said Thursday. He added that a public battle over the name was undermining the city's original goal.
Gov. Jim Justice closed the private Black Knight Country Club in December 2017, due to dwindlng membership.
When the private club closed its doors, Rappold didn't want the historic building to fall into disrepair in the middle of Ward V, a section of town that hosts a vibrant minority community and one that is attracting new businesses, he stated.
Rappold, 70, had been a member of the club at one time. Now, as mayor, he began to envision a beautiful facility and public golf course where everyone could learn to golf or go enjoy a day by the pool. He was able to get Council on board for the purchase of the club. In a 4-1 vote in March, Council agreed that the city would buy the former Black Knight.
The purchase raised some controversy in the city, with some questioning whether the city had funds to operate the park.
In an attempt to be transparent, Rappold said, he and treasurer Billie Trump met with The Register-Herald to share the financial plan with the public.
Rappold said he had expected some controversy over money. What he hadn't anticipated, he said in June, was a more painful battle over the name.
Local businessman Brian Brown appeared before Council to request that the city remove "Black Knight" from the name. He explained that "Black Knight" was associated for many in the city with a sense that they had been excluded. He told Council that, as a private club, Black Knight had done little to endear itself to residents of Ward V, where it was situated. Blacks weren't given admission to the club until the 1980s.
He pointed out that people of other religions, wealthier people who didn't fit a certain social standard and poor people of all races were also barred from joining.
At first, Rappold admitted Thursday, he resisted the idea. He said he believed that opening the grounds was proof that the city wanted all residents to enjoy the new park. Many in Beckley had fond memories of the private club. Rappold wanted to give those Beckleyans a sense of nostalgia when they used the facility.
In addition, Parks and Recreation Director Leslie Baker was relying on the Black Knight history to market the club to tourists. "Black Knight" carried a 90-year-old brand, offering an obvious marketing niche for a new park that was just getting on its feet.
To Rappold, and to others in the city, he said, it only made sense to maintain "Black Knight" in the title of the new park. The city spent money on branding of the new facility as "Historic Black Knight Municipal Park," moving ahead on a marketing plan.
Rappold said in May that he was bothered by Brown's report that a local African-American man had worked hard in the late 1950s, as a teenager, to gain entrance to the National Honor Society at Woodrow Wilson High School, only to be barred from attending his induction ceremony when it was held at Black Knight Country Club. Blacks were not allowed as guests then.
Money had been spent. A marketing plan had been developed. Rappold didn't want racism associated with a park that sat smack-in-the-middle of the city's most racially diverse ward. In fact, he said, he heard from former Black Knight members that they were offended that they were being portrayed as racist and elitist by Brown and local media.
Brown, meanwhile, began a boycott of the new park and started a petition asking Council to consider a name change.
Rappold asked Brown to wait up to 18 months, to allow the city time to develop and fund a new marketing plan. Brown told the mayor he would always be civil, but he disagreed to the terms. He wanted a change of the name to one that would welcome everyone.
Brown got an unexpected supporter Thursday, when Tom Patterson, a local attorney and great-great grandson of Black Knight Country Club founder Col. Ernest Chilson, joined him in asking for the name change. A personal friend of Rappold's, Patterson praised the mayor for his foresight in buying the park but said that keeping a name that conjured up a sense of exclusion to a segment of Beckley was akin to keeping up a Confederate monument because it had "history."
Patterson and Brown urged the mayor: Make the change.
Rappold said Thursday that, after having heard the stories of how some perceived Black Knight, he was sensitive to the divisiveness the name was creating. A call Thursday morning from an 87-year-old man who had been a lifelong friend and mentor helped him see clearly that he had a very serious decision to make, as mayor.
Would he, as Beckley's leader, advocate for a name that had, in the past, welcomed some in the city and shunned others? Or would he step out of the realms of marketing to choose a name that would embrace Beckley as a whole and send the message that Beckley was a city undivided?
"This chaos over the name 'Black Knight' is never going to go away," Rappold said. "Beckley is too good of a city to be divided.
"After hearing from this man whose opinion I have always respected, I realized we needed a fresh start and a new name.
Rappold welcomed Brown to the new park and said he hopes the younger man will call off the boycott.
Patterson on Wednesday had invited Brown to play a round of golf on the new public course — whatever it is called.
Brown's reaction to the news Thursday was very positive.
"That is fantastic news," he said. "I'll be happy to use the park when the name changes."
Justice was not immediately available for comment Thursday afternoon.