Nate Monroe: Renaming a park, Jacksonville reckons with its shameful past

Nate Monroe
Florida Times-Union
An informational sign about James Weldon Johnson at Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing park on a vacant lot at the corner of Huston and Lee Street in what used to be the LaVilla neighborhood. The small chain wrapped lot is where the home that was the birthplace of James Weldon Johnson and his brother John Rosamond Johnson used to stand.

COMMENTARY | Consider the pattern: In 1989, incensed by yet another city budget that failed to include adequate money for drainage in Black neighborhoods, three City Council members walked out of the chambers and refused to vote on it. The white City Council president ordered them arrested and brought back, an outrage one observer at the time dubbed a "preview of apartheid."  

The city has, to this day, still failed to fix this broken, half-century-old promise to bring basic infrastructure to its oldest neighborhoods, many of which are majority Black.

That white City Council president, who later became a member of Congress — Tillie Fowler — has a park named after her on Roosevelt Boulevard.

James Weldon Johnson is the greatest individual the city has ever produced, an internationally renowned Civil Rights icon and renaissance man. He was greater than the city's namesake; greater than Fowler; greater than any mayor or anyone else who has held elected office in this city. 

But there is no city park named after him. 

More:120 years ago, Jacksonville shaped ‘Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,’ the black national anthem

Another example: The city does almost nothing to recognize Ax Handle Saturday — a day of shocking racial violence and one of the most important events in the city's history — but it was ready to step all over the 60th anniversary of the event with a partisan political rally this summer, an insult that generated national scrutiny

Another: In June 2018, a 27-person city task force on Civil Rights produced a 59-page report on findings and recommendations for ways Jacksonville can better honor its past. The report has been virtually ignored, its recommendations buried.

Another: In 2015, the city did convert the site of Johnson's birthplace into Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing Park — the song widely recognized as the Black national anthem written by Johnson and his younger brother, John Rosamond Johnson. After five years, however, and despite the efforts of a few good people working to design it, the park is merely a sun-blasted grass lot with a few historical markers.

It's not that city government can't act quickly and decisively when it wants. The council, for example, snapped into action last week to commit $110 million to a project deepening the St. Johns River on an emergency fast track. 

It's just that sometimes — and maybe there's a common thread here — the city tends to drag things out, let sleeping dogs lie, find reasons to slow down and smell the daisies. 


Take what happened at a Monday City Council committee meeting: City Councilman Garrett Dennis had introduced legislation in late June to rename the Confederate-themed Hemming Park after James Weldon Johnson. The park sits in the shadow of City Hall and is a core feature of downtown — so it would be a fitting tribute to the man. With several co-sponsors, Dennis' bipartisan bill seemed bound for success. 

But at the last minute, City Councilman Danny Becton proposed instead naming the park in honor of military veterans, a proposal that garnered enough sympathy from the committee chairman, Randy White, that he deferred the Johnson renaming.

Now the entire issue has been thrown into uncertainty.

Mayor Lenny Curry's habit of taking unilateral action can be disastrous, and yet Monday showed that the alternative — governing via Jacksonville's 19-member City Council — can be just as rancid.

No, Becton proclaims, this isn't about race. He simply no longer supports renaming parks after people. And so why not veterans? White jumped to proclaim that he, too, no longer supports the renaming of parks after individuals.

What interesting timing for such changes of heart.

"It's a veiled effort to not name the park after an African American. Period," Dennis told me.

Dennis has an abrasive style that can rub his colleagues the wrong way, but he isn't a lone voice of outrage.

Earl Johnson Jr., the son of another important Civil Rights hero, expressed concern during an interview on WJCT on Wednesday about the "last gasp effort to railroad" renaming the park after Johnson by "using veterans' organizations as pawns in that effort."

It was amazing to watch some of the council members, including a few who co-sponsored Dennis' bill, melt away from the debate entirely Monday. It was as if simply invoking the word "veterans" paralyzed them.

"I don't know if I want to have this conversation anymore," City Councilman Terrance Freeman, one of the original co-sponsors, said. 

"I'm sitting here and my hands are sweating," Councilwoman Ju'Coby Pittman, another co-sponsor, said. 

"I can't vote at this point." 


Councilman Rory Diamond has tried to find a compromise: Name the park after Johnson, and designate a portion of the park a veterans plaza. This struck initially as a reasonable middle ground that would at least accomplish the task of honoring Johnson, but there is good-faith, convincing criticism that there shouldn't be a need to place an asterisk next to a park bearing Johnson's name. 

"The notion he needs to be bolstered by some other names or other honorariums in the park ... I reject that notion," Earl Johnson Jr. said. 

Ben Frazier, leader of The Northside Coalition of Jacksonville, called it "an effort to dilute and belittle" Johnson. 

This is the core problem with the proposed bargain: No one doubts Jacksonville's commitment to its military community. It is tangible, measurable — an entire city department is dedicated to advocacy for veterans and military expansion in Jacksonville, not to mention parks, a memorial wall and one of its most prominent buildings: The VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena.

But the city's commitment to its Black residents? Well, for that there are broken promises, vacant lots, white-washed history. It is measurable in its failure, tangible in its rot. 

Nate Monroe's City column appears every Thursday and Sunday.