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VOL. 128 | NO. 130 | Thursday, July 4, 2013

Eastward Bound

Columbus statue could move from Downtown to Marquette Park

By Bill Dries

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Another Memphis park may be getting a name change just as the controversy over three Confederate-themed parks starts to move again at City Hall.

The statue at Christopher Columbus Park in Downtown Memphis may be moving to Marquette Park in East Memphis at the request of the Memphis chapter of the Italian-American organization UNICO. 

(Daily News/Brian Johnson)

But unlike the controversy surrounding those parks, there doesn’t appear to be any disagreement about the changes for Columbus Park, a tiny patch of land at Adams Avenue and Third Street.

The Memphis chapter of UNICO, the Italian-American organization, has approached the Memphis City Council about moving the statue of Italian explorer Christopher Columbus in the Downtown park to Marquette Park in East Memphis, site of the annual Memphis Italian Festival.

UNICO commissioned the statue of Columbus by sculptor Archimedes A. Giacomantonio and unveiled it in October 1987. A few years later, the Memphis Italian Festival debuted in the East Memphis park named for longtime Memphis Park Commission employee Pep Marquette.

“They really have no connection there at Adams and Third,” said council member Jim Strickland, who was approached by leaders of the Memphis UNICO chapter. “They will pay for the move. It won’t cost the city anything. Move and no longer call it Columbus Park. Put the Columbus statue in Marquette Park and maybe even call it Columbus Circle in Marquette Park.”

Leaders of the Memphis UNICO chapter could not be reached for comment.

Strickland also has some ideas about what to do with the pocket park if Columbus pulls up anchor.

He wants to honor the group of African-American attorneys who were the vanguard of the local civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. His idea comes from a picture in his office of the group of attorneys gathered around a judge’s bench during a hearing for one of the early sit-ins of the movement in Memphis where they represented the protestors. The group, including attorneys Benjamin Hooks and Russell Sugarmon, later became judges themselves.

“That’s the inspiration for a park honoring that generation of lawyers who helped fight for the civil rights movement in the ’60s,” Strickland said. “And it’s right across from the courthouse; I thought that would make sense. The Ben F. Jones Bar Association chapter is interested in trying to sponsor that. It will be no cost to the city – any of it – and I think it will be beneficial to everyone.”

Meanwhile, council member Bill Boyd, chairman of the council’s parks committee, said he intends to push for a council vote on permanently renaming the three Confederate-themed parks at the July 16 council meeting.

An ad hoc committee, including council members and historians, recommended in April to rename Forrest Park as Civil War Memorial Park, Jefferson Davis Park as Harbor Park and Confederate Park as Promenade Park.

Each of the three parks got temporary names from the council in February as the Tennessee Legislature considered and later passed a law forbidding the renaming of any military or war memorial parks and the removal of statutes and markers from any of those parks.

The council renamed Forrest Park as Health Sciences Park, Jefferson Davis Park as Mississippi River Park and Confederate Park as Memphis Park.

The ad hoc committee’s recommendations are not binding on the council.

A group of nine Memphians called “Citizens To Save Our Parks” filed suit against the city in May in Shelby County Chancery Court. They seek a declaratory judgment declaring the council’s actions “null, void and invalid” and the restoration of any signage taken down in the three parks. The legal action is pending.

While Columbus Park isn’t part of the court case or the renaming controversy, it does have a connection to Nathan Bedford Forrest, the Confederate General, first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan and slave trader buried with his wife at Forrest Park beneath the large equestrian statue honoring him.

A historical marker just a few yards from the statue of Columbus notes that one of Forrest's homes was on the site. It fails to mention that the land between Second and Third Streets was also the site of one of Forrest's slave markets that was in such poor condition it collapsed burying alive several slaves.

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