By Frances Weller | June 17, 2020 at 4:51 PM EDT – Updated June 17 at 7:17 PM
WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) – The name of one of Wilmington’s biggest landmarks could soon change. At least two New Hanover County commissioners are ready to change the name of Hugh MacRae Park.
Commissioner Jonathan Barfield says he believes it will happen.
“I’m confident that it will,” Barfield says. “Rob Zapple and myself–we’ve been having these conversations for the last several weeks for sure. We’ve even come up with some possible names. The one that sticks out in my mind is Long Leaf Park, recognizing you have Long Leaf Mall right down the street. The Long Leaf pines are out there as well, but with so many people signing a petition for name change and looking at the history of that particular name itself, and what it means.”
A petition to change the name was started last week. It started with several hundred signatures the first couple days and now has over 14,000.
The park is named for one of Wilmington’s most powerful men in the late 1800′s. Hugh MacRae was involved in the city’s 1898 massacre where a group of about 2,000 white men brutally killed dozens of African Americans and overthrew the local government.
Barfield says the history is painful for people of color.
“My father shared with me when he was serving on the board of commissioners he became enlightened that when that land was given to the county there was a deed restriction,” he said. “The deed restriction said that no African Americans or black people were allowed in that park. Years later, the county, of course, took out that deed restriction as there are many deed restrictions across our community and across the country that have those same stipulations in them and that particular park did have that in there. That folks like me were not allowed in that park. And so many people who grew up here still have those memories of being a child and not being able to go in Hugh MacCrae Park.”
Barfield says Wilmington descendants of Hugh MacRae have indicated to county leaders that they are open to having the name changed.
WECT spoke with Hugh MacRae III who suggested he would be open to a conversation but that elders of the family would have to weigh in, too.
County Commission chair Julia Olson-Boseman would like to wait until the new chief diversity officer for the county is hired before making any decision. That position was created within the past two weeks. Commissioner Pat Kusek would also like to wait on the new hire.
Boseman says, however, she would consider a name change.
“I grew up in Long Leaf Hills and spent my childhood going to Hugh MacRae Park,” she says. “I cut through the park for three years walking to school at Roland Grise. I never knew the history util recently. That being said, if the name is offensive to our citizens and is another sign of division, then we should change it.”
Commissioner Woody White says he is open to a conversation about a name change but does not necessarily believe that heals the hurt. He sent WECT a statement that can be read in its entirety below.
For now, the issue is on hold until a new diversity chief is hired. Boseman says interviews for that position will begin in July and could be filled within 30 days.
Woody White’s full statement can be read below:
At this point, I have not taken a position on whether the county should change the name of Hugh MacRae Park. I am open to a broader community discussion about whether that should occur.
My personal view is that changing the names of public parks and tearing down statues accomplishes nothing. I believe such actions are hollow and symbolic acts of societal window dressing that make people feel better in the moment, but do not bring real, lasting change. I also understand that others disagree with me and recent events have, understandably, accelerated this conversation.
Like many white men of his era, Hugh MacRae held abhorrent racist views. History is rife with people who held offensive and racist views, like he did, and condemning those views is the right thing to do, especially for white people, in positions of leadership, like me.
None of us were alive when Hugh MacRae lived and we can do nothing to change the time in which he lived. But we are alive today. And today demands that we all work together to improve everyone’s life, in real ways, so that the era in which we do live, is the best it can be.
Instead of changing the name of Hugh MacRae Park, a deeper and more impactful act, to me, would be for the county to work together with today’s black leaders to erect, in Hugh MacRae Park, a monument and learning center that would help explain our community and our nation’s struggle with racial inequality. The Park is in the center of our county, and space within it could be utilized as a resource center for education, understanding, and growth that highlights the legislative and social progress of recent decades, while charting pathways forward to build on all that has been accomplished. We are not near where we need to be as a society. But more open and frank conversations about how far we have come, and how far yet we still have to go, seems to me at least, to be a more productive thing to do than changing names of public parks.
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