Sep 162014
 
Palmer Park located at the corner of S. Carrolton and S. Claiborne.

The arch over the entryway to Palmer Park is the only sign of its namesake. (UptownMessenger.com file photo by Zach Brien)

The popular Palmer Park — surrounded by an array of diverse neighborhoods including Carrollton, Fontainebleau, Pigeontown and Hollygrove — was given its name during an era of nostalgia for the Confederacy to honor a pastor so passionately in favor of slavery that Gen. Robert E. Lee described his oratory as more powerful than “an entire regiment of troops,” according to a presentation by a University of New Orleans researcher.

Commemorating the Confederacy

UNO researcher Kevin McQueeney (right) speaks about the history of Palmer Park while his colleague, Jessica Dauterive, listens during a presentation at the Rising Tide conference Saturday at Xavier University. (Robert Morris, UptownMessenger.com)

UNO researcher Kevin McQueeney (right) speaks about the history of Palmer Park while his colleague, Jessica Dauterive, listens during a presentation at the Rising Tide conference Saturday at Xavier University. (Robert Morris, UptownMessenger.com)

Benjamin Morgan Palmer was the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of New Orleans during the Civil War era, and his 1860 Thanksgiving sermon after the election of Abraham Lincoln is credited with spurring Louisiana’s secession. In it, Palmer describes slavery as an institution created by God to benefit the “black races.”

“We know better than others that every attribute of their character fits them for dependence and servitude,” Palmer said. “By nature the most affectionate and loyal of all races beneath the sun, they are also the most helpless; and no calamity can befall them greater than the loss of that protection they enjoy under this patriarchal system.”

The park that bears his name at the corner of South Carrollton and South Claiborne avenues was originally called Hamilton Square when it was created as a formal gathering place for the former city of Carrollton, said Kevin McQueeney, a University of New Orleans graduate student in history who presented his findings Saturday at the Rising Tide conference. Hamilton Square was originally named after Alexander Hamilton, one of the founding fathers, but after Palmer’s death in a streetcar accident in 1902, New Orleans city leaders decided to rename the park after him.

“It’s a time period right around when we’re building the Jeff Davis monument,” McQueeney said, describing an era of “commemoration” of the Confederacy in New Orleans.

The park’s name was not the only vestige of the city’s conflict over race, McQueeney said. Segregation of the park persisted long after the Supreme Court ordered the integration of public spaces, and it remained separate from the New Orleans Recreation Department. In the 1970s, attempts by the city to take over the park resulted in screaming matches at the New Orleans City Council, McQueeney said, and newspaper ads at the time vigorously defended keeping it segregated, arguing that white people were moving out of New Orleans because of integration.

The park finally made part of the city system in 1975, McQueeney said. Today, it is extremely popular among a number of groups — the Friends of Palmer Park spearheaded the construction of a playground there that now even has a shade structure, and it is the site of the monthly Arts Market of New Orleans (which has even dedicated some months to celebrations of African culture), the Mid-Summer Mardi Gras parade, performances by the Louisiana Philharmonic, Christmas caroling by neighborhood groups, and fundraisers for mentoring and home-building organizations.

None of these groups are likely aware of the origin of the park’s name, McQueeney said. The name ‘Palmer Park’ is written on the entryway arch, but no plaque or sign gives any explanation of it.

Is Palmer worthy of a park in his name?
McQueeney said he is frequently asked whether the park’s name should be changed, and it’s a question he has a strong interest in as well — but no easy answer. As a historian, he’s not in favor of “erasing history” — though the former Palmer school in New Orleans has already been renamed in honor of “Raisin in the Sun” playwright Lorraine Hansberry, he said. On the other hand, Palmer’s role in history would be considered worthy of honor by very few of the people who use it, he said.

“Here’s a space named after a very ardent racist,” McQueeney said.

McQueeney has even created surveys that he distributes via his Twitter account to probe people’s feelings on the issue. Some residents are likely attached to the name, just because it’s what they grew up with — without ever knowing about its namesake, he said. For people who don’t know the history, the Palmer name has the potential to be an educational tool — though that could also be explained in a historical marker after the name change, he said.

What to change the name to is also an interesting question. One suggestion has been to name it Marsalis Park, after the legendary family of jazz musicians that hails from the area. Another suggestion has been to rename the park after Earl Palmer, a New Orleans drummer who has appeared numerous recordings — and whose name wouldn’t require any change to signage or tradition.

“It’s a big battle about memory — how we should remember it and how dangerous is that memory,” McQueeney said.

McQueeney has posted much of his research at NewOrleansHistorical.org, a website and mobile app directed by history professor Michael Mizell-Nelson of University of New Orleans and Vicki Mayer of Tulane University to share “stories and scholarship” about the city.

  • Deux amours

    I knew that. I even went to B M. Palmer Elementary school downtown. Mr. McQueeny and I may be the only persons on Earth who would think of that racist while visiting Palmer Park. Since there is nothing mentioning him or even his full name, I say this is not a real problem. Isn’t there some other famous Palmer we can think of and simply rededicate it? I hate changing names.

    • banks mcclintock

      Just put in a miniature golf course that has a stand that serves iced tea and lemonade and dedicate it as Arnold Palmer park. “When life gives you lemons make Arnold Palmers”

  • LDG Resident

    This city is dotted with historical place names, celebrating key figures from an era many would like to ignore. Good or bad, I think the names shouldn’t change, they serve as reminders of what once was and also how far things have come. It’s part of our legacy which is not always rosy.

    My favorite example in the city of historical irony is the intersection of Martin Luther King and Jefferson Davis PKWY.

    • Drew Ward

      There’s less irony in that intersection than you think. Whilst Davis was an ardent defender of the Confederacy (he initially wanted nothing to do with it but was ‘recruited’ into the role), he was quite publicly critical of slavery and argued throughout his life, both before and during the war, that such an institution was inherently not only toxic to a society but that it would also in the foreseeable future quickly lose its presumed economic viability.

      Although rarely discussed within the context of the Civil War today, this was a regular part of general public dialogue and very oft-discussed topic that was very often debated in Louisiana from early colonial times, thus yielding the economically self-destructive restrictions within Le Code Noir, and nationally as far back as the revolution as shown through early legal efforts such as the 1807 federal ban on importation of slaves which in effect ended the African slave trade and meant the labour supply within the nation’s various slave economies would continually shrink and push up costs, eventually leading to the end of slavery by making it too expensive. Who knows whether their assumed ends would have ever happened or how long it would have taken, but considering the global social philosophy of the time, it’s still quite telling that they were discussing and attempting to facilitate a phase-out so to speak from a government standpoint.

      Jefferson spent much of his final years following the war here in New Orleans and was very active in urging the reconciliation, healing, and atonement that he new would have to occur for that horrible episode within our national epic to ever be truly over.

      We’re all still trying to close all those wounds even today, but like Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis deserves anything but the misinformed vilification he so often receives. And when you consider the real history behind the oversimplified good guys & bad guys version of history we’re fed in popular media and modern school books, I think Dr. King would have no problem with the streets named in both of their honours crossing each other, as history would show that had they been contemporaries and active in public life at the same time, that their individual paths would have likely intersected many times as two very different leaders of two very different situations and certainly to a good extent of two very different philosophies collectively urging their countrymen toward what ultimately would prove to be the very same eventual goal.

      Slavery, racism, and any and all of that sort of thing is bad, is inexcusable, and is something that no one should in today’s world ever attempt to justify or defend. But at the same time, to assume everything we’ve been told about history as related to these things is true, not leaving important things out, or not twisted toward a desired interpretation or debate, is not a whole lot better.

      When it comes to history, especially here in New Orleans, there’s always more to the story and things are rarely even remotely as simple as we are led to believe.

  • jexni

    ROFLMAO, it took over four decades for a progressive scholar to figure this our. It is more dangerous to allow butt hurt people to change history IMHO, for example taking George Washington off of a school honoring him as was done in Orleans Parish is absurd.

  • JazzLunatique

    Rename it after Earl Palmer and Lee Circle after Lee Allen.

    • SpacelySprockets

      Bravo! Brilliant idea.

  • Max Niedzwiecki

    I think all these names should be changed. We should not be honoring people like this.

  • Romulus

    Orwellian. One of the easiest way to control people is by severing them from their historical memory.

    By today’s standards, Lincoln was a racist too. If we are going to insist on judging all of history by standards prevailing right now, we ensure our own historical irrelevance in the very near future.

    It’s creepy, totalitarian, and anti-human to conduct politics through cultural warfare.

    • Max Niedzwiecki

      What’s Orwellian is the denial of truth about our past. We’re talking about someone who — even in the context in which he lived — was an ardent racist, and who was one of the leaders in a war effort dedicated (at least largely) to preserving slavery.

      • fuck islam

        Id like to know who these people are that ample time on their hands to go around stirring racial animosity. Kevin Mcqueeny? Seriously, have you nothing better to do?
        Who and why are these people so intent on.rewriting history, simply because they dont agree with it?
        Get your hands off our parks, our confederate heros and go back to your Yankee home.

    • SpacelySprockets

      People aren’t trying to rewrite history. They’re just queasy about honoring somebody who was a racist S.O.B.

      • fuck islam

        Who said they have to honor anybody?

    • JJ Pershing

      Really? Are you seriously equating the drafter and issuer of the Emancipation Proclamation with the drafter and preacher of the 1860 Thanksgiving sermon? Talk about a stretch…

  • Annunciation
  • Deux amours

    If Mr. McQueeny were to discover that one of his ancestors owned slaves, would he change his name?

  • Let me get this straight: changing names of parks and streets in the 20th Century to celebrate pro-slavery secessionists = OK.

    But changing names of parks and streets in the 21st Century to celebrate more inclusive and relevant local heroes = Not OK?

    These places were named for a purpose and renamed for a purpose. They can be FURTHER renamed for a purpose, whenever we desire to do so. Old Palmer has been celebrated for quite long enough. Let’s put someone else’s name on the park.

  • “What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
    By any other name would smell as sweet.”
    ― William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet
    So yeah names is names, but “image is everything” so lets turn this lemon into lemonade and addresses our NOLAnomics that has 50% of our black males unemployed-
    http://theadvocate.com/news/6234057-123/study-paints-grim-employment-picture

    + FYI- I’m no granola smokin- long gross beard wearin hairyhipster lefty antigun Bywater vegan patchouli poopoohead- I friggin hate the close minded, and normally avoid the “RACIST” stupid bandwagon- but not with our major quantifiable problems that force us to live in fear- I say screw Palmer!!!!
    Lets not let a good crisis pass us by, name suggestions?
    What about Booker T. Washington? The School that bears his name is shuttered and is a toxic dump site… Modern NOLA?
    Best from Freret St.

    Andy Brott

  • Moses

    Why waste the money to change the name. Using the name and heritage of Earl Palmer is a great & brilliant solution. The Old Reverend Palmer needs to die again and our Park turn over the new leaf and bring on Rock & Roll Hall of Famer, New Orleans’ own Earl Cyril Palmer!