I grew up in Alameda and spent many glorious childhood summers in our parks. I have significant nostalgia for these places, central as they are to my childhood memories. Now that I am raising my own children in Alameda, I’m honored to serve as a Commissioner on the Alameda Recreation and Parks Commission. Our park system is a point of great pride in this town and an incredible asset to our community.
This is why I am ashamed that our parks continue to bear the names of racists and slavers, and why I will vote to rename Jackson Park at our July 9 meeting.
According to the City’s own research, Jackson Park – the City’s first park – was actually named Alameda Park when it opened in 1895. In May 1909, the City Council approved the renaming of Alameda Park to Jackson Park after President Andrew Jackson, alongside the naming of its two new parks, Washington and McKinley. There appears to be no known reason as to why the Park and Playground Commission specifically chose Andrew Jackson when re-naming Alameda Park after a President.
While we do not know why the park was renamed, we can consider the social and political context of the times. The renaming took place at the height of the Chinese Exclusion Act, and against the backdrop of the Jim Crow Era. 1909 – the year Jackson Park was renamed – was the year in which the singe-greatest number of Confederate monuments were erected around the country. We can’t ignore this context – nor the subsequent history of racism and segregation in Alameda, including redlining practices, and the passage of Measure A and its discriminatory after-effects.
President Andrew Jackson owned more than 300 people over 66 years, all of whom were enslaved working the crops at his plantation the Hermitage. In 1830 he signed the Indian Removal Act, which led to the “Trail of Tears.” It resulted in the forced relocation of tens of thousands of Native Americans – including Choctaw, Chickasaw, Seminole, Creek and Cherokee people. Thousands died in the process – including more than 5,000 Cherokee people alone who lost their lives to whooping cough, typhus, dysentery, cholera and starvation along the 1,200 mile forced march to “Indian Territory.”
Why do we name parks? Per the City’s policy, it is “to honor persons, organizations, places and/or events in the history of the City by naming facilities after them. This process acknowledges and memorializes those honored and enhances the value and heritage of the city.” It is abundantly clear that Andrew Jackson’s legacy is not befitting the honor of naming recognition, and does not “[enhance] the value and heritage” of Alameda. Nor is there any direct connection between Andrew Jackson and our city.
Some people have argued that renaming the park erases history in the interests of political correctness. I would assert that change is not about forgetting the past but rather acknowledging its reality – that by honoring people like Andrew Jackson with naming recognition, we are perpetuating a false accounting of history that erases the enslavement, rape and genocide he perpetrated.
Others ask – who cares? The park name is “just a symbol.” To those I would say – symbols matter, especially as they contribute to our community’s identity and how we define and enshrine who belongs, and whose comfort counts. Naming our beloved places of recreation and play after notable racists sends a message that some people are unwelcome. It celebrates white supremacy and teaches us that people like Andrew Jackson are worthy of emulation.
Still others say “this action doesn’t mean much.” I agree that changing names is insufficient action on its own. We can’t stop at names. This is why at tomorrow’s meeting I will propose:
• That we change the name of Jackson Park, and establish a public renaming process that engages the community to do so.
• That ARPD research the histories of all our parks’ namesakes, and that the Commission vote to update them at a future meeting as appropriate. As a starting point, I propose adding a principle to our naming policy that no park be named after a known slaver.
• That ARPD’s work on diversity and inclusion, which I co-lead with Commissioner Navarro, result not only in a diversity, equity and inclusion policy that is developed in consultation with the community, but that it also include an action plan that will address how to make our parks places that are more equitable and where everyone in our community feels welcome.
What we choose to elevate, through monuments or the honor of naming, shows what we value. Let’s bring those values – that all are welcome in Alameda – in line with our actions. Starting with the places where our next generation learn and play.