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Hemming Park name change splits council members

Councilman Becton proposes alternative to naming park after James Weldon Johnson

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A plan to change the name of a downtown park is causing a rift within the Jacksonville City Council, but a compromise is in the works.

It centers around Hemming Park, which is currently named after Civil War veteran Charles Hemming, who donated a Confederate memorial to the state in 1898. The monument was recently removed from the park in front of City Hall.

For several weeks, the City Council has been considering changing the name to James Weldon Johnson Park, naming it after a famous civil rights activist from Jacksonville who wrote “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” — a poem-turned-song commonly known as “The Black National Anthem.”

RELATED: Relative says renaming Hemming Park shouldn’t be up to City Council

On Monday, another name was put into play: Veterans Memorial Park. That suggestion threw a wrench into the whole renaming plan. Some council members are reluctant to vote against the two ideas.

The legislation to rename the park after Johnson was filed about three weeks ago by Councilman Garrett Dennis. Now, Councilman Danny Becton — with the backing of some veterans groups — proposed naming it Veterans Memorial Park in honor of Jacksonville’s veterans.

That idea came as a surprise to Dennis.

“It was definitely a sneak attack by a fellow council member,” Dennis said, noting that legislation to rename Hemming Park after Johnson has been in the works for several weeks. He said Becton never raised questions or concerns about the legislation before Monday and then suggested another option at the last minute.

RELATED: Councilman Dennis introduces legislation to rename Hemming Park

Becton said he has been hearing from veterans organizations for nearly a month and that is why he presented his idea. He said he has a problem naming the park or anything else after another individual because, as he put it, that could cause problems down the road.

“I just feel from a principal standpoint renaming anything from one name to another name right now is not a good idea,” Becton said. He continued by saying that something unforeseen could come out about the park’s new namesake, which would put the park in a negative light. “No one is perfect and I guess you could find something negative about anybody.”

Councilman Rory Diamond said Becton’s idea puts other council members in a bind because it pits them against veterans, who might feel slighted if the name isn’t chosen. So, Diamond offered a solution: he is introducing legislation to rename the park after Johnson and include an area called Veterans Plaza in front of City Hall.

RELATED: City crews remove Confederate statue from Hemming Park

“I think it’s important to bring people together,” Diamond said. “I think all veterans are fighting for our freedom that we all enjoy. James Weldon Johnson was all about bringing people together. This is an opportunity for our plaza and our park to reflect a joint community, the community working together.”

Several veterans groups and local veterans leaders said they support Diamond’s compromise, but local activist Ben Frazier of the Northside Coalition said no compromise should be necessary. (Read Frazier’s full statement below)

“Down through the years, veterans have been honored many times before. Unfortunately, never has even one internationally renowned Black man from Jacksonville ever been so honored,” Frazier said in a statement. “The so-called compromise is a political ploy by Councilmen Becton and Diamond to appeal to the prejudices of ordinary people, rather than by using rational argument. We say: No Compromise.”

All of this could come to a head next Tuesday when the full council meets. As for the compromise, that’s one area where Becton and Dennis found agreement. Neither thinks it will work.

Dennis does not support it because he believes Johnson’s name will eventually get lost over the years. Becton said it will still be naming the park after someone and, in his view, that’s problematic. Still those two alone won’t decide the future of the park as it would take 10 votes from City Council to rename it.

Statement from Ben Frazier:

Jacksonville should seize the opportunity to name a park in honor of its most celebrated native son!

Instead, there is an effort afoot to dilute the honor that Mr. Johnson should be so rightly accorded.

The Diamond/Becton agreement is an accord designed By, For and Between white men!

In my opinion, there should be no agreement, settlement or compromise regarding the proposed name change to James Weldon Johnson park. No Compromise!

This is another example of white privilege and white supremacy in action! 

Without input from any advocacy group or Black-led organizations, groups of white men have reached their own conclusion! There’s nothing new about that! (”They” have agreed that “they” will allow the park to be named after Johnson, but only if “they” can  section off a part of the park to honor vets.) Hogwash! We say: No Compromise!

The Military population in Jax is 11%. The city’s Black population is 31%.                                                                                   

Down through the years, veterans have been honored many times before.                                                              

Unfortunately, never has even one internationally renowned black man from Jacksonville ever been so honored! The so-called compromise is a political ploy by Councilmen Becton and Diamond to appeal to the prejudices of ordinary people, rather than by using rational argument. We say: No Compromise.


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