The City Council-appointed Committee on Renaming Parks held its inaugural meeting on Friday in City Hall and made plans for a second meeting on April 1st where the public can express its views in a town hall format.
If that meeting should feature as many disparate points of view as the one on Friday — and there is every reason to believe such will be the case — the public meeting could turn into a wild and woolly affair.
Such was not the case on Friday, inasmuch as the committee’s Council co-chairs, Bill Boyd and Harold Collins, did their best to insure that decorum prevailed and the committee members managed to disagree — and occasionally agree — in polite fashion.
But the variance in points of view was wide enough on what happened in the past — the Civil War portion of it, anyhow — that the chances of agreement on how to commemorate that past seemed remote. That was especially the case since Councilman Boyd, who did most of the moderating, expressed himself as being somewhat less than fully grateful for naming suggestions made earlier in the week by Mayor A C Wharton and Councilman Jim Strickland.
In a letter addressed to committee members, Wharton and Strickland proposed the name of “Civil War Park” for what had been “Forrest Park” and “Battle of Memphis Park” for what had been “Confederate Park” before the Council assigned placeholder names to the parks in response to pending legislation in Nashville that would have closed off their options.
Apparently miffed because the letter was made public before the committee had a chance to meet, Boyd expressed mild, possibly tongue-in-cheek displeasure at the start of Friday’s meeting about being “upstaged."
The Rev. Keith Norman, current president of the Memphis NAACP, made it clear early in the meeting that he regarded the idea of paying homage to Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, a “slave trader,” as unacceptable and that the Southern Confederacy, whose reason for being was to further slavery, was a case of treason against the United States and therefore deserving of no honor.
That was one flank of the debate. The other was provided fairly quickly by Becky Muska, a late appointment by Boyd, who as head of the Council’s regular parks committee had taken on the responsibility of selecting all the members of the naming committee, the formation of which had been formally proposed by Strickland.
Muska, said Boyd later, had been recommended to him and was chosen because her ancestors had settled in Memphis early in the river community’s history.
Her explanation for the Confederacy and the Civil War was as distant from that of Norman as could be imagined. The 13 Southern states that seceded had done so not because of slavery, she said, but in defense of “states’ rights,” and their grievance was against high tariffs on Southern agricultural exports imposed by Northern manufacturing interests.
As far as Forrest Park went, it was an outgrowth of Progressive Era politics and had the support of Robert Church, a Memphis African-American eminence, she said. For all the volatility generated by disputes over Forrest and the Confederacy and the meaning of that aspect of history, “I don’t feel ashamed, and I don’t feel embarrassed.”
Opinions of the other members present were at all points of the spectrum in between the poles provided by Norman and Muska.
The other members of the committee, also present and taking part, were: Jimmy Ogle, current president of the Shelby County Historical Commission; Larry Smith, deputy director of Parks & Neighborhoods for the City of Memphis; Michael Robinson, chairman of African & African American Studies at LeMoyne Owen College; Douglas Cupples, former adjunct instructor of history at the University of Memphis; and Beverly Bond, associate professor of history at the University of Memphis.
Bond was just as insistent as Norman was that notice be taken of the negative side of Forrest’s history — including his involvement with the Ku Klux Klan as its first Grand Wizard — and that, in a general revamping of parks, the history of African Americans and their contributions be given their overdue attention and that accurate accounts of the Civil War period be accounted for. She acknowledged that the statue of Forrest and the gravesites of the general and his wife at the base of it were “not going anywhere.”
That point of view was also expressed by Cupples, who had begun the day’s discussion by suggesting that the task of updating the artifacts and monuments of Memphis history involved “adding to, not taking away.’ Cupples also argued that it was not the business of the committee to come to a consensus about the Confederacy, “whether it was ‘treason’ or not.”
Both Ogle and Smith also attempted to route the discussion away from forming conclusions about history. Ogle noted that the saga of Memphis was abundant with examples of every kind of historical development, telling “the story of American better than any other city,” and that ample potential parkland existed to pay tribute to any and all points of view.
Smith took the point of view that the committee’s purpose was to formulate guidelines for future development of park properties. “I don’t think we’re here to name a park,” he said bluntly (and somewhat surprisingly, given the publicly stated purpose of the committee).
Councilman Collins got in the last words at Friday’s meeting, commenting that Memphis was, “believe it or not, the 18th largest city in the nation, a metropolis,” and that “we want to be one of the nation’s largest progressive cities.” Consequently, he said, “our mission is bigger than our own opinions.” The committee’s task was to do what “benefits the city.”
Whatever that is is yet to be decided, of course, and the naming committee’s role, as Strickland noted afterward, was an advisory one. The Council will make any final decisions.