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Petersburg council renames Lee Memorial Park to honor legends with city ties

Petersburg council renames Lee Memorial Park to honor legends with city ties

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Petersburg City Hall

Petersburg City Hall

The city of Petersburg’s Lee Memorial Park will no longer be named for a Confederate general, but rather for legends who have called the city home.

The City Council voted 6-1 to rename the park to Petersburg Legends Historical Park and Nature Sanctuary, during a virtual Tuesday meeting.

Cities and towns across the country are removing Confederate names, statues and plaques from buildings, schools and parks after nationwide protests over racial injustice stemming from the death of George Floyd, a Black man killed by a Minneapolis police officer. Last week, the Hanover County School Board voted 4-3 to rename Lee-Davis High and Stonewall Jackson Middle schools.

Councilwoman Treska Wilson-Smith, who has tried to rename residential streets for former Black Petersburg residents in the past, cast the dissenting vote Tuesday.

For Wilson-Smith, the name change “does not show that Black Lives Matter. It did nothing to promote the movement or to promote any African Americans.”

“It showed a reaction to the events of the world, but it does not support the answer to the events of the world,” Wilson-Smith said. “Our desire to change names should not be a reaction. We must proactively make the changes necessary to promote the history of the African Americans in Petersburg in order to instill the knowledge and pride in the African Americans in our city.”

Marcus Squires, a Petersburg resident, spoke in favor of renaming the park during Tuesday’s virtual public hearing.

“I know it was originally named Lee Park to memorialize that General [Robert E.] Lee protected the city of Petersburg from Union forces, but times are changing now and we need to realize the divisiveness and hatred of the Civil War,” he said in an interview. “We have so many different people who came from Petersburg, and I think the idea of ‘Legends’ was put forward to memorialize all legends of Petersburg from sports legends to academic legends to American legends.”

One legend, in particular, Squires noted, was Joseph Jenkins Roberts. Born in Norfolk, he moved to Petersburg at a young age before his family emigrated to Liberia, where Roberts became Liberia’s first president in 1848.

Highlighting the vast size of the park — over 300 acres — Squires discussed the possibility of naming sections of the park after different legends. Squires hopes to get a group of community members together to work toward connecting all aspects of the park, to let residents know it’s more than the basketball and tennis courts.

After entering into a partnership with the Wilcox Watershed Conservancy, the City Council adopted a master plan to preserve the park, including the addition of extended walking trails, gardens, bridges and an environmental education center.

Kenneth W. Lewis, president of the conservancy, spoke on his own behalf during Tuesday’s public hearing in support of changing the name to the Petersburg Historic Park and Nature Sanctuary.

When the Works Progress Administration was implemented under the New Deal in 1937, Petersburg hired nearly 100 Black women to plant thousands of wildflowers, trees, shrubs and over 10 miles of trails, Lewis said.

“We have the opportunity to do something great for Petersburg and presevering the current Lee Park by giving it a new name. It is time for a new name,” Lewis said.

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