Legislation Propels Parks Controversy to New Level

By Bill Dries

As Shelby County suburban leaders were meeting in Nashville Tuesday, Feb. 5, with Tennessee legislators about possible moves toward some version of suburban school districts, the Memphis City Council was reacting to a pending bill in the state Legislature.

The Tennessee Heritage Preservation Act of 2013 has nothing to do with the Shelby County schools merger. But it scraped a still raw nerve at City Hall from the 2011 move to the schools merger – two years of state legislation altering the terms of that merger, fueling an ongoing federal court lawsuit over first the merger and then the attempt at suburban school districts.

The result this week was the chronic controversy over the idea of renaming Nathan Bedford Forrest Park reached a new level.

The council voted Tuesday to not only rename Forrest Park but Jefferson Davis Park and Confederate Park as well.

All three parks were renamed effective immediately with temporary names until the council moves, possibly as early as next month, to settle on and approve the permanent new names for the Civil War-themed parks.

The bill, sponsored by state Rep. Steve McDaniel, R-Parkers Crossroads, and state Sen. Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro, would forbid changing the name of any park in the state named in honor of a military veteran or commemorating a war and forbid removing statues, markers and other items from those same parks.

“We shouldn’t be debating this stuff,” said City Council member Harold Collins, who has not been among those leading the latest attempt to rename the park.

“For us to be thrown into a debate by other people who don’t even sit on this board – it’s not right,” he continued. “I’m not going to accuse them of being takeovers, rough riders, antagonists, meddlers. But you get the picture. Instead, they want to decide what they want to name our properties.”

Earlier in the day, council member Bill Boyd, the most vocal council opponent of the renaming action, urged his colleagues to go for an alternative like renaming the soon to be expanded L.E. Brown Park in the old Cleaborn Homes public housing development in honor of Ida B. Wells.

Wells’ 19th century Memphis home was on the site of what later became the park, Boyd said.

Boyd also argued for a “normal process.”

“This isn’t normal anymore because of the state,” council member Kemp Conrad countered.

Conrad said he had not planned to vote to rename Forrest Park at the outset. He abstained on the immediate name change resolution that was approved Tuesday.

He also grilled Lee Millar, former chairman of the Shelby County Historical Commission and a long-time opponent of renaming Forrest Park.

Millar acknowledged he had talked to McDaniel about the legislation but said he didn’t have advance knowledge of it. “I was hoping he would,” Millar told Conrad.

Conrad said Millar had a few hours at that point to convince McDaniel to withdraw it or the council would act on all three Civil War-themed parks.

“They are trying to force the state’s will on the city,” Conrad added.

Council member Shea Flinn framed it in the language some of those opposed to the name change have used as they insist Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest was more war hero than slave trader and Ku Klux Klan grand wizard.

He referred to the legislation as “the ironic war of aggression from our northern neighbors in Nashville.”

The council resolution, which was written to take effect immediately, renames Forrest Park as Health Sciences Park, Confederate Park as Memphis Park and Jefferson Davis Park as Mississippi River Park.

The council also moved ahead Tuesday with the first of three readings of two ordinances to permanently rename Forrest Park to include the name of Ida B. Wells and to rename Forrest and the two other parks with names still to be determined.

The council also approved a resolution Tuesday setting up a six-member committee to study the issue of what to call the parks. The committee includes two council members, the city parks and neighborhoods division director, two professional historians and a representative of the NAACP.

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