Committee Split on Park Renaming Options

By Bill Dries

The nine-member ad hoc committee that is supposed to come up with recommendations for the Memphis City Council on what to call three Confederate-themed city parks displayed a clear rift Monday, April 22.

But those on the panel will begin putting proposals on the table at their next meeting tentatively set for next week.

Some in the group favor restoring the old names of Confederate, Jefferson Davis and Forrest parks. The council changed those names earlier this year to temporary ones and appointed the committee to make recommendations to it on what the permanent names should be.

Others on the ad hoc committee say the old names should not be restored although some were open to new names that retained some Civil War connotations.

“Why not just take these three parks and make them represent the people of the city of Memphis,” said University of Memphis associate history professor Beverly Bond who suggested the name Civil War Memorial Park for Forrest Park.

“I will not take anything away from the military genius of Nathan Bedford Forrest,” she said of the Confederate general, slave trader and first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. “But I will also not concede that he was not a slave trader. You have to balance those things. … Give some interpretation.”

Fellow University of Memphis and Christian Brothers University history professor Doug Cupples, however, said the old names should be restored and the parks “expanded” with monuments to African-American citizens from the same era, including Robert Church Sr., the South’s first black millionaire.

“This could be an energizing force. The park is already there,” Cupples said.

“I think we can take a big step forward to taking into account that this is a diverse city. … The Confederacy was a significant part of the city’s history. Nathan Bedford Forrest was probably one of the top five or six people in the history of Memphis.”

“They are part of our history,” he said of the three parks. “Let’s maintain them and build upon our history.”

But Bond argued it’s not as simple as saying “History is history.”

“That’s not necessarily true,” she said. “It’s interpretation of what you have. And what we have been doing is interpretation.”

Memphis branch NAACP President Keith Norman also opposed letting private groups put monuments in the parks without city approval.

“I don’t think we are here to discuss private funding,” he said. “We are here to talk about the names. We keep the name thing the main thing we can get that worked out.”

Norman said private funding is how the controversy began recalling the stone marker bearing the name of Forrest Park that the Sons of Confederate Veterans put on the Union Avenue side of the park.

The city removed the marker touching off the latest chapter in a long-running controversy over the name of that park and Forrest’s legacy. The controversy came to include the other two parks when a legislator from another part of the state floated a bill in Nashville that would prevent local governments from changing the names or removing any monuments or markers from parks named for military figures, veterans or wars.

“I like the names of the parks as they are. I can consider changing one or two maybe,” said Jimmy Ogle, chairman of the Shelby County Historical Commission. “I know it’s a difficult process. I would like to see us do more for history in this city in the park lands or other lands we have.”

Any recommendations made by the group will go to the full council for action. The committee is co-chaired by council members Harold Collins and Bill Boyd.

Collins reminded the group the council is in budget season when any cost associated with the name changes would be considered.

“We are not here to rename any park. We are here to offer suggestions to the Memphis City Council,” Collins said. “Those are the only parks in Memphis we need to focus on. To try to move in any other direction would be wasting a whole lot more time that we don’t have to spare as it is.”