Councilman Files To Rename 5 Parks, Following James Weldon Johnson Debate

Aug 10, 2020

Ahead of Tuesday’s Jacksonville City Council meeting, Councilman Garrett Dennis is filing five emergency bills to rename parks throughout the city to honor veterans. 

He’s trying to send a message to his fellow council members after last week’s intense debate in regarding Dennis’ push to rename Hemming Park after James Weldon Johnson, the late internationally known activist, writer and musician from Jacksonville. 

The five parks Dennis’ bills would rename are: 

  • Former Jacksonville Landing site to “Veterans Landing” 
  • Tillie K. Fowler Park to “Veterans Park at Roosevelt”
  • Ed Austin Regional Park to “Veterans Park at Hidden Hills” 
  • William F. Sheffield Regional Park to “Veterans Park of Oceanway”
  • Jim King Park & Boat Ramp at Sisters Creek to “Veterans Park & Boat Ramp at Sisters Creek”

During debate on the Hemming Park renaming, Councilmen Danny Becton and Randy White said they were going to be against renaming any park after a person. 

Charles Hemming was a former Confederate soldier. A Confederate monument was taken down at the park in June, per an order from Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry. 

“This is a tremendous slippery slope in the fact that no one on this committee nor on our council is without sin,” Becton said last week. “To be judged on something, on an action within their lives that at the time, with the actions of their times, it was perceived as normal, are now judged, voiding out their entire life, services, contributions and events.”

Several council members said they no longer felt comfortable choosing between veterans and Johnson, while others said they couldn’t vote against veterans. Ultimately, it was deferred. 

“Well, you know what? While we're at it, there are parks around the city, and let's name every park that’s named after a person... name it Veterans Park,” Dennis told WJCT News on Monday. 

Dennis said he feels it is hypocritical to have other parks named after Jacksonville figures, but to have issues with renaming the Downtown Jacksonville park after Johnson. 

Last week, Becton argued that Johnson might one day have controversy uncovered from his past. 

“James Weldon Johnson has been vetted for over 100 years,” Dennis said. “He is on a U.S. Postal stamp. I'm pretty sure President Roosevelt vetted him before he made him an ambassador to Venezuela to Nicaragua.”

During the initial debate, Councilman Rory Diamond proposed a compromise where the park would be renamed James Weldon Johnson Park but the plaza inside it would be called Veterans Memorial Plaza.

But Dennis said it’s not a compromise because veterans’ groups didn’t push for a name change commemorating them — Becton did.

“They've been pulled into a fight by a mean-spirited Councilmember, Danny Becton, and he's wrong for that,” Dennis said. “It’s now divided the council and has the potential to divide our city.” 

The city council will be taking up the five bills at Tuesday’s meeting as an in-and-out emergency, meaning they’ll decide the bills’ fates the same night.

Dennis said he’s curious to see if council members are still unwilling to vote against veterans. 

“We're gonna have a nice healthy debate, and people's true colors will be exposed,” Dennis said. 

Sky Lebron can be reached at slebron@wjct.org, 904-358-6319 or on Twitter at @SkylerLebron.