A modest garden that has memorialized Nashville’s child victims of homicide for more than 20 years will soon undergo a transformation. The longtime organizers say that solely keeping track of the children’s names is not enough.
So beginning with a ceremony Friday at the garden within Centennial Park, they are beginning to gather and share the stories of these children, as well as studying the circumstances of their deaths.
For Kennda Watkins Sr., that has meant revisiting his last interaction with his son, Kennda Jr., in September 2017.
“The wind, the coldness had started coming. And he told me that he needed a jacket,” the elder Watkins said about the final phone call they shared. “I was just so amazed. Because he just wouldn’t ask me for stuff. He was trying to show me he could be a man, or something.”
His son hadn’t been staying with the family, and had been in some trouble with the juvenile justice system. He was a couple weeks from turning 18.
“The next phone call wasn’t a good phone call,” Watkins Sr. said. “I just remember they said he got shot. And I thought, ‘Alright, he’ll be alright ... Got shot?’ Then I think another family member called and said he wasn’t gonna make it.”
It was September 14, 2017. The teen was found fatally shot in the parking lot of an East Nashville apartment complex.
Watkins Jr. is one of 23 young homicide victims from 2017 and 2018 who are now being remembered by victim’s advocacy group You Have The Power, which has organized the Children’s Memory Garden since 1996.
That was the year three troubling child gun deaths prompted the group to take action.
“It really shocked the Nashville community,” said Andrea Conte, group founder and former first lady of Tennessee. “Of course, there were news reports for some of them. … But those news stories disappear, and so there was no permanent place where we remembered these kids.”
The garden became that place.
Yet two decades later, it remains largely unknown outside of the families, advocates and law enforcement leaders who attend a pair of annual ceremonies at the site.
“There are 234 children that are remembered there. That’s pretty shocking when you think of that number,” Conte said. “They had dreams, they had hopes, they had plans, they looked forward to the next day — and never dreamed that maybe what they were doing was the last day that they would ever have.”
Over time, volunteers have kept up the garden with the help of Metro Parks. But its location in a low-lying area of Centennial Park has posed challenges. Water and mud often wash into the garden, obscuring the names of the children inscribed there on its brick walkway.
So the garden itself is being redesigned and updated. But the mission has also broadened.
Starting this year, the children will now be remembered in annual printed memory books and a website to be known as “Voices from the Garden.”
Conte said the shift stems partly from a realization she had during a visit.
“I was there at the founding. I’ve been there for ceremonies. [But] I did not know who most of these children were. And that’s something I should have known,” she said. “We know their names … but we really need to know who they were.”
She gathered a volunteer team — mostly former journalists, like Tam Gordon — to assemble the stories.
“I didn’t know what I was taking on,” Gordon said, “and I really didn’t know the emotional toll that it was going to take.”
As Gordon gathered old articles, interviewed funeral directors and reached out to families, she would often be overcome, forced to set the project aside for a few days.
There was the 16-year-old girl who loved dancing and who was fatally shot on her front porch during a birthday party.
The two sisters — ages 5 and 8 — killed by their stepbrother.
The boy who wanted to be a teacher shot defending his mom during a home invasion.
And the young girl burned to death in a house fire intentionally set by her mother.
“That just makes no sense,” Gordon said. “And you wonder what they would have been, what they would have done?”
She says these children need to be talked about and remembered, “and their parents, grandparents, siblings, need to be assured and reassured that our city is not going to forget about them.”
That has been the feeling for Kennda Watkins Sr., who was able to share stories of his son’s upbringing and love of football — as well as the challenges he sees young people facing today, like peer pressure, easily available pain pills and violent video games disconnected from consequences.
“There’s different devils coming at different kids, depending on the environment,” he said.
And in his family’s case, there was this troubling tension: that the elder Watkins had been working to be involved in his son’s life.
“Right now, kids of color, there’s not a lot of fathers around,” he said, “and you the only one that got a father, it’s almost not, like, cool.”
That relationship remained strained. And it was only after losing his son that Watkins Sr. found the final letter that the teen had been writing.
“He was apologizing for his actions and his wrongs, and then he wanted to talk about his friends who didn’t have no daddy. He just wanted to fit in and be cool with homeboys of his that didn’t have no father. That was it.”
Learning from these families — about the causes of violence and how to prevent it — is central to the evolving mission of You Have The Power.
But for now, there’s plenty of daunting work to do as its volunteers gather the stories behind the other 200 names in the garden.