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Local activist starts petition to rename Emancipation Park

Petition calls City Council’s choice of name insulting, disrespectful

<p>Recently introduced bills in the General Assembly could impact the future of the Robert E. Lee statue at Emancipation Park.</p>

Recently introduced bills in the General Assembly could impact the future of the Robert E. Lee statue at Emancipation Park.

The Unity Coalition, a local nonpartisan organization, recently started a petition to urge the Charlottesville City Council to retract the decision to rename Lee Park as Emancipation Park, calling the decision disrespectful, hurtful and insulting.

Mary Carey, a local activist, authored the petition. The petition calls for City Council to rename Emancipation Park “with a name that is more acceptable to the community and in a way that is more transparent and inclusive.”

“I think the name ‘Emancipation Park’ really hurt the African-Americans in this town,” Carey said. “We’ve been through enough with slavery ... It’s still kind of hurtful when I walk around town all day and see that name when you walk down Market Street to the park. You don’t see the names of black heroes, parks for black heroes, things you’d like to see.”

City Council voted to rename Lee Park as Emancipation Park on June 5. The name was not on the list of official recommendations compiled by City Council through a community survey. The four names suggested at the community panel were Market Street Park, Festival Park, Central Park and Community Park.

Overall, the renaming of the park received positive responses, City Councilor Kristin Szakos said. The name has only recently garnered extensive negative feedback.

“There were individuals all along who disagreed with the name we selected,” Szakos said. “I have heard a lot more positive response to the name than negative, until probably the last week or two.”

Lawrence Gaughan is the executive director of Gov360, a non-partisan activist group that formed the Unity Coalition prior the events in Charlottesville on Aug. 12. City Council’s decision to rename Lee Park as Emancipation Park illustrates a broader issue the Unity Coalition seeks to address, Gaughan said.

“As a facilitator of the Unity Coalition, we’re totally supporting the petition,” Gaughan said. “But the broader issue is not just changing the name of the park, but the way that they did it. City Council does things that are irrespective of the black community, and there’s been a tremendous disconnect between City Hall and the black community.”

Because of its historical context, the word emancipation can be hurtful to African-American people, Carey said. City Council’s decision to use it was out of context, she said.

“Historically, ‘emancipation’ is a word that hurts the black community. They don’t think that it should be on a park, especially a park where there’s a Confederate soldier who fought to keep slaves,” Carey said. “So ‘emancipation’, the name, is very hurtful because the word means ‘to unwind’, ‘to be free’, it doesn’t mean that people can use it freely as they want.”

Associate Education Prof. Walt Heinecke edited and gave feedback to Carey on the petition before it was published. Heinecke had previously submitted requests to hold counter-rallies during the Unite the Right rally in August. 

“[Carey] asked me to edit the petition and take a look at it, which I did,” Heinecke said. “I support having the statues removed, and the parks renamed, so Mary Carey, who’s a friend of mine, reached out to me, and asked me about the renaming of the park.”

Heinecke said City Council’s method for receiving input is often flawed and should be a more transparent process.

“I can understand how Mary Carey and other folks in town are upset that [Emancipation Park] got on the list, perhaps without public input or public support,” Heinecke said. “I certainly support reevaluating the name at this point, because if people are upset about it, it should be an open and transparent process by which the parks get renamed.”

Those who want the name changed should not be ignored, Gaughan said.

“It would be great to give the name Emancipation Park to the people who really want the name, but when there’s so many people that don’t like it, that should counter-balance them,” Gaughan said. “It’s emblematic of a broader issue that happens all the time within the black community, even with Democrats on City Council.”

The petition has garnered over 800 signatures on paper and online, Carey said. At a City Council meeting on Monday, Carey gave City Council members a list of park names suggested by individuals who signed the petition.

“I want them to start responding to the people, to their constituents, because we as the people of Charlottesville are part of the city government, and they really don’t listen. So I want them to take notice of and respond to people,” Carey said.

Szakos said she does not know of any plans on behalf of City Council members to revisit the issue.

“We’ve made the decision — it is Emancipation Park,” Szakos said. “I don’t know of any plans on behalf of the city councillor members to revisit that at this point.”