When a group of African-American men hit upon a strategy to rip statues of Confederate leaders Nathan Bedford Forrest and Jefferson Davis from Memphis’ parks, they did more than remove images of racists from places of honor to places of obscurity.
They wrote the first chapter of a how-to manual on how black people can begin to liberate their leisure spaces from racist symbols and racist histories.
After Tennessee’s historical commission denied, once again, Memphis’ request to remove from two parks the statue of Forrest, the Confederate general who led a massacre of hundreds of surrendering black Union soldiers at Fort Pillow in 1864 and who was an early leader of the Ku Klux Klan, and Davis, who was president of the Confederacy, a group of black men formed Memphis Greenspace Inc.
Because the Tennessee Heritage Act doesn’t apply to private parks, they were able to persuade the city to sell the parks to them for $1,000 each. Then, in the dark of night on Dec. 21, cranes arrived, tore the statues of Forrest and Davis from their bases and hauled them away.
While Greenspace was formed to get rid of the Confederate statues, its actions should shine light on the fact that, like in Memphis, many parks and recreational spaces throughout the nation are fraught with racist symbols and racist histories that repel many African-Americans — and that it’s way past time to flip the script on that.
This predicament, in fact, was the subject of a 2016 study by KangJae Lee, an assistant professor at the University of Missouri whose research centers on parks and recreation. After examining findings that show most visitors to national and state parks are disproportionately white, he looked at why black residents who live near Cedar Hill State Park in Cedar Hill, Texas, rarely go there.
His work revealed a legacy of Jim Crow. For generations, their parents and grandparents were barred from the park, contributing to a cultural disposition that kept them away, not to mention the fact that Cedar Hill Park was once a large slave plantation — a fact that goes unmentioned at the park’s historical sites and feeds into black resentment.
Kind of like how Forrest’s history of being a Klansman and a slave trader were nowhere to be found on his statue.
Other ghosts of racism haunt city recreational spaces.
In Savannah, according to Donald Grant’s 1993 book The Way It Was in the South: The Black Experience in Georgia, an 1866 law barred black children from its parks unless they were accompanied by white children, and in 1890, when bicycling became popular, it forbade black people from using its bike paths.
In 1911, around the time Confederate statues began to be erected in many public spaces in the South, all of Atlanta’s parks were off-limits to black people, and by 1926, they could only use three of its parks. Many, in fact, were arrested for walking through the “white parks” on the way to work.
That scenario resonates with Van Turner Jr., director of Memphis Greenspace. He said one of the factors that drove him to take down the statues of Forrest and Davis was the fact that they were grim reminders of a time when his father and other black people weren’t allowed in those parks unless they were with a white person.
Confederate symbols in public spaces also conjure images of oppression in Jacksonville (Florida) Confederate Park, which sits north of downtown and has a monument to women of the Confederacy, stirring resentment in many of the African-Americans who live near the area.
A Confederate monument erected in 1898, at the beginning of the Jim Crow era, in downtown Jacksonville’s Hemming Plaza praises the Confederate soldier for “deeds immortal” and “heroism unsurpassed.”
Sixty-two years later, African-American civil rights demonstrators would be beaten bloody in that same place by racists wearing Confederate uniforms and wielding ax handles.
No mention of that in Hemming.
Yet, as Memphis Greenspace has shown, that past doesn’t have to be black people’s future when it comes to parks and recreational spaces.
Besides demonstrating and strategizing to expunge racist monuments from recreational spaces, a broader purpose exists here. That purpose is to persuade black people that they are entitled to enjoy recreational spaces that their tax dollars were supporting even during a time when they were either intimidated, or outright barred, from enjoying them.
Brothers like Turner have shown the way. And while the strategy that Memphis Greenspace used may not necessarily be fit for other places grappling with how to take down monuments honoring racists, their actions can be used to begin a blueprint to empower black people with the belief that they deserve to enjoy public spaces that white people have always enjoyed.
That’s because although those places may hold memories of past pain, they also hold potential for future health, for battling the obesity and inactivity that disproportionately plague African-Americans.
And now that we have a way to get rid of monuments to white supremacists who died to keep us out of those public spaces, it’s time for us to begin to claim them as our own.