Voices of the Past

City broadens recognition of historical events with markers and monuments

By Bill Dries

A new crop of historical markers and monuments is sprouting across the city in a move by several groups to broaden the span of the city’s recognized history.

"Legacies," a sculpture commemorating the history of Chickasaw Heritage Park, was dedicated recently near the Metal Museum. A new crop of historical monuments is sprouting across the city.  

(Photo: Lance Murphey)

Last week the UrbanArt Commission formally dedicated a statue by artist Vinnie Bagwell in Chickasaw Heritage Park that is the image of a Native American woman. Her sculpted cloak bears images from some of the history that followed the Native Americans who built the ceremonial mounds in the park around 1500 A.D.

“We are as an organization trying to rebuild the contact between history and the present,” said UrbanArt Commission director Christina Lanzi.

Some historians have been vocal in recent years about what they feel is an overemphasis on the Civil War in the city’s history. Although Civil War era cannons recently returned to Confederate Park and the 150th anniversary of the Civil War gunboat battle on the city’s riverfront was commemorated in June.

“It’s not all about the Civil War. Our history is very broad,” Jimmy Ogle said as he did double duty as host of the unveiling of the statue.

Ogle, who was present as a representative for the Riverfront Development Corp. and is also chairman of the Shelby County Historical Commission, said the area has several layers of history and many more names in its past with more to come.

“There’s new life to be pumped into the area,” he said. “There’s a very solid neighborhood here.”

The park that most Memphians today would recognize as being next to the Metal Museum is the site of Fort Pickering. It began its life as a park as the privately owned Jackson Mounds Park. When it became a public city park in 1913, it was renamed DeSoto Park for Spanish explorer Hernando DeSoto, and in the 1990s it was renamed Chickasaw Heritage Park.

“That, I think, is very fitting,” said Dr. Robert Connolly, director of the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa. “DeSoto was never in Memphis and didn’t build the mounds. … It’s a real trend that we are trying to go into … to recognize the voice of the people who came before.”

The two mounds are what is left of a set of more mounds that formed what Connolly says was a population center larger than the excavated village at Chucalissa, which is about six miles south.

“We would assume that this really would have been a real center for the Native Americans in the region,” Connolly said. “A place like Chucalissa would have been like a suburb, kind of like Millington might be to Memphis.”

A new marker unveiled in September at Peabody School honors school custodian John B. Weatherall, who died in 1953 as he was running to help put out a fire at the school.

(Photo Courtesy of Jenny Weatherall)

Meanwhile, the commission unveiled a new marker in September on the playground at Peabody Elementary School in Cooper-Young.

It honors John B. Weatherall, the school’s custodian who also lived with his family in a house on what is now the playground that faces Oliver Avenue.

In September 1953, Weatherall was at a dentist’s office several blocks away when there was a fire at the school. He ran from the dentist’s office to the school and collapsed as he was running down the stairs to reach the fire. He died from a heart attack.

“The markers weren’t big back then and nobody took the initiative to try to get this done. It’s something I’ve wanted done for a long time,” said Jenny Weatherall, his granddaughter, who began work on the marker several years ago in a process she said was not easy and required lots of verification.

John Weatherall was a Marine who fought in World War I. For the ceremony, a U.S. Marine Corps color guard was present and so was Weatherall’s daughter, his only surviving child, who died earlier this month.

Jenny Weatherall said it is important for history to run deeper than the famous or those in the limelight during their lives.

“It’s also about people who have given their lives – heroes,” she said. “He gave his life for the school. It means a lot for my family.”

In 2008, a bakery owned by two Japanese families that closed two days after the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was remembered with a semi-permanent public art installation at 1310 Madison Ave. commissioned by the UrbanArt Commission.

The address is now a parking lot with a power transformer. It was the site of Kuni Wada Bakery in 1941. The Kawaiis and Nakajimas, the two families who owned the bakery, were arrested the day after Pearl Harbor and their bakery was closed, later to be seized by the Federal Reserve Bank.

When the work by Sanjit Sethi was installed, the box contained a system that spread a scent twice a day that smelled like bread baking in the area. The goal was for someone in the area smelling the scent to follow it to the marker, which remains at the site today.