Memphis City Council member, Lee Harris, stands in front of the statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest
The names we give to public schools, parks, and buildings matter. Names provide an opportunity for communities to identify what they hold dear and to remind themselves and teach their children about those values. As Brian Kisida, Jonathan Butcher, and I argued in an analysis we did of trends in school names, school districts nationwide are more and more frequently missing the opportunity to use school names as a means for praising individuals who embody our cherished values. Instead, we are now more likely to give schools vague nature names that sound more like herbal teas or day spas (Whispering Hills, Hawk’s Bluff, etc…), than people who we think could serve as models for our children.
Because names are important and because they should reflect community values, if communities change their values they also need to consider changing public names. There is no doubt that Memphis has changed since it originally named three public parks: Confederate Park, Nathan Bedford Forrest Park, and Jefferson Davis Park. State legislators in Tennessee, however, were considering a law that would prevent certain name changes. According to the USA Today:
The “Tennessee Heritage Protection Act of 2013” bill, already introduced in the state legislature, would prohibit name changes to any “statue, monument, memorial, nameplate, plaque, historic flag display,school, street, bridge,building, park preserve, or reserve which has been erected for, or named or dedicated in honor of, any historical military figure,historical military event, military organization, or military unit” on public property…
To pre-empt that legislation the Memphis City Council voted 9-0 to temporarily rename these three parks as Memphis Park, Health Sciences Park, and Mississippi River Park. They’ve also formed a commission to explore what the new names for these three parks should be. Let’s hope they break the trend and actually identify individuals who embody values that Memphis holds dear after whom they will name the parks. There are certainly a large number of great people associated with Memphis or who come from elsewhere who could fit the bill.