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
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.