What’s in a Name? A Lot

Alameda Recreation Commission votes to rename Jackson Park

Amid global demands to defund police and address racial inequality, Alameda Parks and Recreation Commission voted last Thursday to rename Jackson Park. The vote comes two years after Alameda residents—including this author—first petitioned the Commission to rename the park honoring Andrew Jackson.

Jackson Park is Alameda’s first park, nestled on the East End’s tree-lined Park Avenue. It initially opened as “Alameda Park” in 1895, according to City staff. In 1909, the City opened three new parks and named each after Presidents Lincoln, McKinley and Washington. Alameda Park was renamed for Jackson, but officials don’t know why.

“It is not clear and no one has found the history of why they chose President Andrew Jackson at this time,” said Parks and Recreation Department director Amy Wooldridge.

Observers have noted the 1909 national context of anti-Asian sentiment and the beginning of anti-Black Jim Crow laws. Many Confederate monuments were erected during the same time period.

Communities across this country have called for the removal of statues and Jackson’s name from schools, parks and streets. Jackson enslaved hundreds of Africans and, as president, signed the Indian Removal Act. Tens of thousands of Indigenous peoples were forcibly relocated and thousands died in what is known as the “Trail of Tears.”

A local petition to rename Jackson Park and dedicate a memorial to those oppressed by Jackson gathered over 1,000 signatures prior to the meeting. Dozens of residents emailed the Commission and a handful spoke in favor of renaming the park during the Commission’s virtual Zoom meeting.

“Andrew Jackson’s legacy is not one that we as Americans or Alamedans should be proud of,” Laura Gamble said. “Why should we honor a man whose primary legacy is the Trail of Tears? Does genocide make any of you proud?”

The Commission moved swiftly to rename Jackson Park and voted to remove the large wooden signage immediately.

The park’s new name is still in the air. The petition recommends “Justice Park.” One park neighbor, Betsy Mathieson, recommended avoiding naming facilities after people. “We all have our foibles, including some that may remain hidden until discovered posthumously during thorough historical research,” Mathieson wrote, recommending places, animals and “non-human objects or entities that represent Alameda’s rich history.” Commissioners signaled a willingness to revert the name back to Alameda Park.

Despite the two-year delay, a number of residents called for a community process that could recommend a new name by the end of the year.

Ron Limoges, the lone current commissioner present during the 2018 discussions, expressed concerns that other parks may face scrutiny.

“I think [Jackson] is the easiest we will confront,” Limoges said. “The issue here is what is to follow. But my concern with the process is when someone calls for (George) Washington Park or (Abraham) Lincoln Park to be renamed and we begin a contentious process.”

Commissioner Aimee Barnes suggested a “restorative and participatory” renaming committee which included community members. The Commission voted to create a subcommittee with chair Adrienne Alexander and commissioner Tara Navarro, and invite input from park neighbors and Alameda youth.

The Commission voted to recommend a new name to the City Council by December 31, 2020. Four new parks will be named by the Commission in the upcoming months. The Council has final authority for naming City facilities.

Organizers vow to keep the petition online until the park removes the Andrew Jackson signage.

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