City Council holds public hearing on renaming of Emancipation, Justice Parks

City staff to solicit new names from public through website, utility bill mailers, open voicemail


The Council originally decided to hold the hearing and discuss the renaming of the parks after a petition was circulated by local activist Mary Carey which called for a renaming of Emancipation Park.

Geremia Di Maro | Cavalier Daily

During a public hearing for the renaming of Emancipation and Justice Parks Tuesday night, the Charlottesville City Council decided that the City will seek names from the local community by putting the matter to a public vote. Councilors noted that neither Lee, Jackson nor Emancipation will be accepted as suggestions.

According to Mayor Nikuyah Walker, city staff will be opening polls for name suggestions online and sending surveys through utility bills. There will also be a suggestions-specific voice mailbox that will be checked regularly. City Manager Maurice Jones said the staggered nature of utility bill mailing would mean the process receiving the results could take up to two months. The Council will then cull the suggestions and resubmit the top contenders to the community for a final vote.

“If we aren’t appropriately reaching out to the broader community,” Vice Mayor Heather Hill asked, “how can we best do that?”

The Council originally decided to hold the hearing and discuss the renaming of the parks after a petition was circulated by local activist Mary Carey which called for a renaming of Emancipation Park.

“The renaming of R.E.LEE park to ‘EMANCIPATION’ park is not acceptable, by the citizens of Charlottesville, the African American community, or the people of color,” Carey’s petition reads. “The suggestion to add context and relevance to the park, was ignored as were all the names that were put forth by citizens. In reality five people, on city council, selected two names of the renamed parks: Justice, and Emancipation Park. This is not a true reflection of the interests of the community.”

In June 2017, Council opted to choose names that weren’t on a shortlist provided by members of the community, the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board and the Historic Resources Committee. Former Councilor Kristin Szakos said the naming was an inadvertent error, according to NBC29. 

Carey said she found the erroneous name to be more than a mistake but that the naming of Emancipation Park was an insensitive and blunt reminder of slavery. 

“You can’t have ‘emancipation’ on there with a confederate statue,” Carey said to the Council during the hearing on Tuesday. “It doesn’t mix. It’s like oil and water.”

The four present councilors — Councilor Wes Bellamy was absent for the hearing, though returned to the meeting in other discussions —  agreed the renaming process must be thorough but fast.

“[We’re] hearing urgency to change the name,” Councilor Kathy Galvin said. “I don’t think this should go on over half a year. I think there’s a desire to get this done. But there’s got to be a process.”

The initial process leading up to the name-changing vote in June was extensive. The Council first voted to create the ad-hoc Blue Ribbon Commission on Race, Memorials and Public Spaces in May 2016 to determine how the city can best tell its complicated history of race. 

The Council then voted to remove the Lee and Jackson statues in February and September 2017, respectively, and to hold a naming contest for the parks in Spring 2017. The top contenders were sent to the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board for consideration in May 2017. The board then submitted its choices to the Historic Resources Committee, who offered recommendations to the Council.

In order of preference, the HRC recommended for Lee Park the names Community Park, Central Park (tie), Market Street Park (tie) and Festival Park. For Jackson Park, the HRC sent Court Square Park, Courthouse Park, The Commons and Memory Park. This motion passed the HRC 6-0 with one abstention.

However, the Council ignored these suggestions, and Carey began assembling the petition October 2017. Two months later, she brought her petition to the Council. The physical petition submitted to the Council has 335 signatures and, at press time, the online petition had garnered 255, including several comments suggesting new names. 

City staff will soon begin soliciting names for both parks, although it is not clear when the online submission form available to the public will be launched. However, Jones said that he hopes the first step of the process will conclude by the end of April.

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