Re-renaming the parks: Addressing Charlottesville’s history

City Council invites public participation in renaming Emancipation Park and Justice Park

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In renaming the parks, members of the city hope to tell an honest narrative about Charlottesville’s checkered past in regard to civil rights and slavery. 

Christina Anton | Cavalier Daily

The City of Charlottesville has again moved to rename Emancipation and Justice Park, formerly Lee and Jackson Park, by turning its ears to the people. The Council launched a new online survey March 6 that allows people to vote on a variety of proposed park names as well as to write-in their own suggestions. 

This move to rename the parks comes after the Council’s controversial decision last June to change the names of Lee Park and Jackson Park to Emancipation Park and Justice Park. The Council’s initial verdict sparked an initiative from the Unity Coalition, a local nonpartisan group, to push the Council to revisit their decision, arguing that the particular choice “Emancipation Park” didn’t undergo the same public process as the other names chosen and deliberated by a community panel. 

The poll includes 17 name options for Emancipation Park and 23 for Justice Park. Emancipation, Lee and Jackson Park are not among the names listed on the survey. Residents could take the survey online or over the phone, or they could have filled out a ballot in City Hall, up until the survey closed March 28. 

Initial steps and ensuing controversy 

Following an extensive period of deliberation and controversy, the Council unanimously voted to rename Lee Park and Jackson Park, in reference to Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, last June. Its decision to change the names to Emancipation Park and Justice Park was met with some objection from local residents. Of particular controversy was the choice “Emancipation” Park — a selection not among a community panel’s list of recommended names, that was unexpectedly proposed and chosen during the Council’s considerations. 

The Council deemed appropriate seven suggestions for Lee Park this past summer — Monacan Park, Sally Hemings Park, Vinegar Hill Park, Unity Park, Freedom Park, Library Park and Market Street Park. On the other hand, Court Square/Courthouse Park, Sally Hemings Park, 13th Amendment Park, Freedom Park, McKee Park, Unity Park and Justice Park were suggested for Jackson Park. 

“When you read the process of how [the Council] got to the name, it is a clear indication that [there is] an issue with process in this city … and it’s a process of not listening to the citizens. The citizens weighed in, the City Council then ignored what the citizens wanted and picked their own name out of a hat,” said Walt Heinecke, associate professor in the Curry School, during a City Council hearing this past February. “And so the issue again is about process, it’s about listening to the public, and it’s about figuring out how to engage the public in much more authentic ways.”

During the same hearing, city residents noted that they believe the Confederate war general parading on horseback through the center of a public space emblazoned with “Emancipation” exudes an offensive irony.  

“You can’t have ‘emancipation’ on there with a Confederate statue,” said Mary Carey,  a longtime Charlottesville resident. “It doesn’t mix. It’s like oil and water.”

Carey was also instrumental in circulating the Unity Coalition’s petition, calling on the city to retract the name Emancipation Park and change it to something that more adequately reflected the sentiments of the community. After amassing over 800 signatures both in print and online, the petition was sent in to the Council two months after its October 2017 inception. The Coalition’s efforts evidently set City Council in motion, successfully motivating the city to open itself to citizen participation in its public spaces. 

Following its February hearing, the Council gathered all the names that it had previously deemed appropriate — including suggestions from the Historic Resources Committee, the now-defunct Blue Ribbon Commission and the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board — and crafted its long list of new options. Suggestions range from the names of historical African American heroes like Sally Hemings Park and Harriet Tubman Park to names more geographical in nature like Market Street Park and Courthouse Park. 

Telling a more complete story

In renaming the parks, the Council hopes to tell an honest narrative about Charlottesville’s checkered past in regard to civil rights and slavery. 

“The goal of Charlottesville City Council last year and also this year has been to tell a more complete story about our history with respect to race and white supremacy, especially after August 12,” said Brian Wheeler, the city’s director of communications. “Both councils have said renaming the parks is one step we can take.”

Despite the Council’s goal, renaming the parks generally has been met with backlash from the other side of the spectrum – those who see stepping away from Virginia’s Confederate past as a form of historical negationism. Such reluctance towards changing park names was demonstrated by the response to a similar poll released by the Council prior to renaming the parks last June – 2,200 of the 2,600 response suggestions included “Lee” and “Jackson.”

“It’s political pressure in a Southern town. There are just people who are tied to their history here, and they see [the renaming] as a threat to their identity and their history,” Heinecke said in an interview with The Cavalier Daily. “They’re still seeing it as history rather than as an issue of race and racial discrimination. They’re ignoring the Jim Crow part of the history.”

Although Charlottesville is still recovering from the consequences of the Jim Crow era, Heinecke said the renaming initiative is a step in the right direction. By providing survey-takers with a wide variety of name options as well as a write-in option, Heinicke said that members of the city hope to convey the true nature of the parks without lending credence to the Lost Cause narrative, allowing citizens to decide how they want to recall — or neutralize — the city’s past. 

Suggested names in reference to historical figures bear varying degrees of relevance to Virginia history. Particularly pertinent suggestions include Sally Hemings Park and Julian Bond Park, both of whom possess deep Charlottesville connections. An enslaved woman on Thomas Jefferson’s estate, Hemings is believed to have born six children in a controversial, seemingly coercive relationship with the University’s founder. Meanwhile, Bond served as an icon and leader in the Civil Rights movement before coming to the University as a professor emeritus of history. 

“Julian Bond, he was on the faculty here and lived here, he was actually my next door neighbor for eight years while he was teaching,” said George Gilliam, lecturer on Virginia history in the Corcoran Department of History. “He’s not a Virginian, but he’s somebody who has deep Charlottesville connections.”

However, other suggestions address broader themes of healing in light of the effects of slavery, Jim Crow and the Civil War. Names like Liberation Park, Unity Park and Liberty Park are meant to signify progress but avoid directly referencing historical figures. Gilliam later added that, in light of the presence of the Confederate war monuments, citizens might find it less discordant to select a fairly neutral name that doesn’t harken to broader themes – name options such as Market Street Park, Court Square Park and Library Park allude more to each park’s geographical location. 

“For some, it’s easier to think about geography — let’s call it the park in the center of our city, let’s call it the park next to the courthouse. Because for some people, those things are deemed less controversial or requiring less thought,” Wheeler said. “So what I think that is reflected in this long list … what you see is a mix of both of those types of suggestions.”  

The obstacle of statues

While calling on the citizens in renaming the parks represents a step forward for Charlottesville, the bronze-sculpted statue of Robert E. Lee towering 26-feet above the park’s manicured hedges challenges the Council’s efforts. 

Still, due to a 1904 state law banning city removal or alteration of public war memorials, along with pending litigation, there are questions over whether the city government has the authority to remove the statues from the park  — even with a 5-0 City Council vote last September. The Council installed tarps to cover the statues in August following the deadly event at the Unite the Right rally, which were unlawfully removed and replaced various times before a Charlottesville Circuit Court judge decided to permanently remove the tarps in February. The fate of Lee and Jackson instead lies in the Charlottesville Circuit Court, which could take until the end of this year to reach a ruling on Charlottesville’s control over the statues. With this uncertain future in mind, the Council has drafted a two-phase action plan for addressing the presence — or lack thereof — of the Confederate monuments. 

“The first phase would be assuming that the statues are still there and what changes would we make. We’d be open to ideas from consultants that would sign up for this work and [to ideas] from the community reacting to it,” Wheeler said. “And then phase two would be assuming that Charlottesville City Council’s wish is enacted — that the statues are removed — what then would we do in the parks?”

Wheeler said that both phases concentrate on telling the history of Charlottesville in a more comprehensive way — shifting the theme of the parks from one that some believe memorializes the Confederacy to one that the Council hopes will challenge the historically ethnocentric narrative surrounding race in the United States while communicating — not celebrating — Lee and Jackson’s roles in American history. 

“A lot of people think that, assuming Lee and Jackson stay there, there will be ... some way to communicate what a lot of people think about Lee — that he is a controversial figure, that he led troops in a treasonous effort to secede from the country, was defeated in war,” Gilliam said. “There is a need to sort of flesh all that stuff out.”

Although the future of the statues is out of the city’s hands, Wheeler said the city is committed to effect change in the one thing it can control – the name of its parks. While the renaming of Emancipation and Justice Park might seem to be a nominal action in an contrastingly tumultuous moment for race relations in the United States, Wheeler said the renaming initiative marks a step towards reconciliation with the events of Charlottesville’s past — aiming to recognize them not just as static facets of history, but as defining features of the present. 

“Our City Council wants to help the parks be part of the healing process,” Wheeler said. “To them, that’s how we move the community forward.”

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