Nashville's Fred Douglas Park May Become 'Frederick Douglass' As Naming Mystery Lingers | Nashville Public Radio

Nashville's Fred Douglas Park May Become 'Frederick Douglass' As Naming Mystery Lingers

Feb 13, 2017

East Nashville's Fred Douglas Park may be formally renamed after famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass. The Metro Parks department is trying to figure out how the name came to be, and the answer remains far from certain.

Metro Parks officials say they are talking to historians at Fisk University and elsewhere to see if anyone knows of a Fred Douglas who would have been the namesake of a park in an African-American neighborhood.

"We think right now that there is more evidence to support that it is probably Frederick Douglas Park, but we want to do our due diligence," says parks spokeswoman Jackie Jones.

The mystery was revived a few months ago with WPLN's Curious Nashville project. Then there has been heightened interest in the one-time slave since President Trump mentioned his legacy this month.

Metro Parks went into its archives and pulled the minutes from board meetings in the mid-1930s. The first mention was the $2,500 purchase of seven acres meant to be a "Negro Park." A few months later, the minutes say it would be called "Douglas" park, with no explanation for what Douglas they were honoring. Oddly, someone wrote with pen in the margin "Fred" Douglas.

These are the minutes taken from a parks board meeting May 17, 1934. It's unclear when the writing in the margins was added.
Credit Blake Farmer / WPLN

Creation of the park was controversial. Some board minutes from a meeting the following month show the city abandoned the plans for a time.

These are minutes from June 21, 1934. The prior month, the park had been named. But the name isn't used in this entry.
Credit Blake Farmer / WPLN

Later, the parks board said it was waiting for "white citizens" to sign off on the tract being "converted into a negro park."

It would be more than two years before the park was opened for use, and even so, it was done "quietly." 

But the parks board was at least consistent when using a name for the park. Even though a 1936 reference to the park in The Tennessean calls it "Frederick Douglas Park," every mention of Douglas Park in those first few years by the parks board has the same spelling.

These minutes are from November 9, 1936. Throughout the early years, the park was always referred to as "Douglas Park," or by no name at all.
Credit Blake Farmer / WPLN

The predicament for the parks department today is people didn't call Frederick Douglass "Fred," and even if they did, his last name would be misspelled. So it's either an intentional error to rile African-Americans at the time, an honest mistake that has somehow never been corrected, or there's another Fred Douglas out there with heirs who need to speak up. Otherwise, Metro Parks is likely to change the name.

We'll leave you with this inspiring bit of audio from the kids who call the park their own today, talking to WPLN's Tony Gonzalez.