Jacksonville City Council Weighs Change To Renaming Public Spaces

Aug 26, 2020

Jacksonville City Councilman Ron Salem wants to create a lengthier process to rename public parks and buildings, after the council two weeks ago struggled with changing the names of two parks. 

Recently, the Council voted to rename Confederate Park to Springfield Park and, after some debate, to change Hemming Park, which was named after former Confederate figure Charles Hemming, to James Weldon Johnson Park, after the Black civil rights activist, musician and writer from Jacksonville. 

Salem’s bill, as currently constructed, would do three things: 

  • Require a proposed name change to go through two public hearings rather than one as it moves through City Council 
  • Require the Historic Preservation section of the City Planning Department to provide analysis of the proposed name change. The report would then go to the Historic Preservation Commission for its analysis
  • Allow buildings and parks to be named after living individuals, rather than only deceased ones. 

“It clearly takes a six-week process and lengthens it to something a bit longer than that, which I think would be appropriate for the renaming of a park or building,” Salem said.

During a public meeting Wednesday morning, several City Council members shared their perspectives on the proposed legislation.

“Renaming structures or naming structures should be handled by the committee as a whole,” said Councilman Aaron Bowman. “And that way, every district knows they're fairly represented in that process.”

Bowman said he doesn’t believe every council member has been able to equally weigh in when buildings and parks have been renamed, because committees don’t include all voices. He also suggested designating periods of time when renaming is allowed to happen, maybe two or three times a year.

Councilman Al Ferraro said he is in the process of developing a park in his District 2.

“We were concerned with putting a memorial in the park and 15 years from now, somebody's not liking it and being renamed,” Ferraro said.

Ferraro said he believes the process for changing the name of Hemming Park “caught a lot of people off guard” because their focus was on the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“I want to also put in something like this, where if we have natural disasters or hurricanes or something like that, things would be put on hold,” Ferraro said. 

Because the meeting was voluntary, not all council members were in attendance. At the beginning of the virtual meeting, only Salem, Bowman, Ferraro, Randy White, and Rory Diamond were on the call.

“The number of council members on this noticed meeting didn't represent the community,”  Councilman Garett Dennis said when he joined later. “It's not a diverse group.”

Dennis also said he didn’t want the change in policy to appear like a punishment for renaming Hemming Park, a change he sponsored. 

“I can't force my colleagues to get on this call,” Salem responded. “I mentioned it last night. I've done everything I can to make this process as inclusive as I can.” 

Councilman Terrance Freeman, who also joined the meeting later, said he wanted to work toward parks’ names telling the story of Jacksonville’s key figures, and money donated to the city shouldn’t be the main factor of whose names are commemorated. 

“Not every family is going to have the resources to commit to the city to do an extended contribution for the sake of naming a family member, and in my humble opinion, that shouldn't limit somebody’s opportunity — who we all feel is a tremendous asset to our community —  for their story to be told,” Freeman said.

Diamond — who has filed a bill to put a two-year moratorium on all renaming  —  said he likes the process of Salem’s legislation, but he doesn’t agree with naming buildings and parks after the living.  

“If anything, I would actually extend the amount of time someone should have left our Earth before we do that,” Diamond said. 

The process to get a structure named after a living person would require waiving the current rules and a two-thirds vote of approval from the City Council. It last happened when late former Mayor Jake Godbold was honored with a building next to City Hall named after him while he was still alive. 

Salem said he’ll tweak his bill before officially filing it in the coming weeks.  

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