Franklin and Jessica Richardson had planned for a relaxing Memorial Day weekend. They would spend Sunday picnicking on the sandy shores of Oktibbeha County Lake, a popular fishing destination on the outskirts of Starkville, Miss., and maybe even rent a cabin for the night.
Instead, within minutes of their arrival, the young black couple were confronted by a white campground manager who pulled out a gun and told them to leave.
A spokesman for Campgrounds of America, a chain that oversees hundreds of commercial campgrounds nationwide, told The Washington Post on Tuesday that the property manager for the Starkville location had been fired. But for the Richardsons, the experience was made all the more harrowing – and somewhat ironic – by the fact that Franklin, a sergeant in the Army National Guard, had recently returned from a nine-month deployment in the Middle East, according to WCBI.
“It’s kind of crazy,” he told the station. “You go over there and don’t have a gun pointed at you, and you come back home and the first thing that happens is you have a gun pointed at you.”
The incident appears to have stemmed from confusion over whether the picnic spots by the lakefront were public or private property. To Jessica Richardson, who documented a snippet of the confrontation in a 39-second video that had been viewed more than 500,000 times on Facebook as of early Wednesday, the manager’s response proved that racism was “alive and well.”
“You can feel the intent behind it,” she told WCBI. “I felt it. I felt the heat from it. I felt it in her eyes. I knew exactly what it was.”
After waking up to beautiful weather on Sunday, the couple researched lakes where they could picnic with their 2-year-old dog, she wrote on Facebook. They settled on Oktibbeha County Lake, roughly 10 miles from Starkville, the home of Mississippi State University.
Less than five minutes after they arrived, Richardson wrote, “a truck pulls up and a white lady screams at us.”
The woman, who identified herself as the property manager, jumped out of the black Dodge Ram and kept one finger on the trigger as she pointed a gun at them, Richardson told WCBI.
“She was just like, ‘Get, get, you don’t belong here, you don’t belong here, you don’t belong here,’ ” Richardson said.
Richardson pulled out her cellphone and began filming. In the video that she posted to Facebook on Sunday afternoon, a woman with short white hair and a yellow Kampgrounds of America T-shirt can be seen approaching the couple with her gun drawn and pointed at the ground.
“This lady literally just pulled a gun because we’re out here and didn’t have reservations, for a lake that we didn’t even know we had to have reservations for,” Richardson narrates as the woman walks closer, a stern expression pressed on her face. “The only thing you had to do was tell us.”
The woman can be heard telling the couple that they should have checked in with the campground’s office.
“We didn’t know,” Richardson said in the video. “The only thing you had to tell us was to leave, we would have left. You did not have to pull a gun.”
The woman tucked the gun back into the pocket of her denim shorts.
“Well, I’m just telling you, you need to leave because it’s under private ownership,” the property manager replied. “Y’all just can’t be out here. KOA won’t let you.”
The couple left, Richardson wrote. On their way out, they stopped by the campground’s office. There, they met another property manager, who happened to be the woman’s husband. Confusingly, he contradicted what his wife had told them
“I get out and start talking to him,” Franklin Richardson told WCBI. “The first thing he says is, ‘Oh, you don’t need a reservation for the lake.’ Then, she pulls up flying, hops out of the car, then proceeded to yell at my wife, ‘Get in the car, you need to get back in the car,’ just cussing her out and she’s not even saying anything.”
In a statement shared with The Post, Kampgrounds of America spokesman Mike Gast said that the company “does not condone the use of a firearm in any manner on our properties or those owned and operated by our franchisees.”
“The employee involved in the incident has been relieved of her duties at the Starkville KOA,” he added.
It’s unclear whether the Richardsons were inadvertently trespassing when the incident took place. Gast said that the couple had been “seeking to access a lake via the campground’s private property.” But Oktibbeha County Board of Supervisors President Orlando Trainer told the Commercial Dispatch that he wasn’t sure if the area where they were picnicking would actually be considered private property, because the KOA in Starkville is located on land that belongs to the local school district.
The lake itself is public, and online reviews suggest the Richardsons aren’t the first to be confused: Fishermen and photographers have previously reported that the campground’s manager screamed at them for trespassing on private property when they showed up without a reservation.
The incident is the latest to call attention to the way that black people engaging in everyday activities are treated with suspicion, resulting in aggressive questioning or phone calls to the police. Parks and outdoor recreation areas, in particular, have a long history of racial discrimination: In the early 20th century, the administrators of national parks discouraged African Americans from visiting, and camping facilities were strictly segregated. Visitors to those parks remain predominantly white, despite the efforts of groups that aim to encourage more people of color to explore the outdoors.
Researchers have found that parks are still widely perceived as places where African Americans will face unwelcoming, or downright hostile, treatment. The experience that the Richardsons described would seem to confirm that. To Jessica, the most shocking part of Sunday’s confrontation was hearing the campground manager say, “Get, get” to her and her husband, making her feel that they were being treated like animals.
“You say ‘Get, get’ to a stray dog that’s on your porch,” she told WCBI. “That ‘Get, get’ got to me more than ‘You don’t belong here.’ “