Wednesday, May 22, 2024

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Graham, NC 27253
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City council: no interest in renaming Sesquicentennial Park


Mayor suggests supporters of Wyatt Outlaw memorial start their own fundraising effort, search for land

Graham city council members heard the city clerk read emails from more than two dozen citizens for about a half hour during their monthly meeting Tuesday night, with most being brief missives in favor of renaming Sesquicentennial Park, on the northwest corner of Court Square, for Wyatt Outlaw. Outlaw, an early Graham constable and city commissioner (apparently the predecessor of a city councilman) who was a black leader within the Republican Party after the Civil War, was lynched on February 26, 1870.

But it was the personal contacts and phone calls from an overwhelming number of Graham residents that appeared to sway the mayor and council members to stick with maintaining the name of the park, dedicated in 1999 as part of the 150th anniversary celebration of the founding of Alamance County. Graham, as county seat, was established in 1851 and celebrated its own sesquicentennial two years later, in 2001.

Alamance County NAACP president Barrett Brown, who is also a Graham resident, had suggested in an email last month that the council consider renaming the park in Outlaw’s honor.

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Graham mayor Jerry Peterman agreed to put the item on the agenda for discussion for the council’s February 9 meeting.

Most of the council’s time on the subject was spent listening to the emailed comments. Two others spoke on the subject through the Zoom teleconferencing platform that the council was using; the five council members were in the council chambers, but city staff and all public participants or listeners had to do so remotely. Most of the staff appeared to be in their city hall offices, and three of them were subsequently summoned into a closed session at the end of the meeting.

But when it came time for the council members to express their views on the park renaming, it quickly became clear that there was no support for the idea from the five council members.
Mayor Peterman said he had heard from more than 100 Graham residents, most firmly in favor of retaining the existing park’s name as a tribute to its first 150 years of history.

Peterman suggested that Brown, who had first suggested renaming the park, do instead as county residents had done in 1999: “Find a location, raise some funds, and place a memorial to the life of Wyatt Outlaw.”

Chip Turner, the council’s mayor pro tem, said, “That park was put there by monies from Alamance County and the city of Graham. A lot of people bought bricks, a lot of people donated monies. I don’t feel it’s our part to change the name of it.”

Hundreds of commemorative bricks were sold to help finance the Sesquitennial Park, as part of the celebration of the county’s 150th anniversary in 1999.

Council member Melody Wiggins also supported keeping the name, although she also was the most vocally supportive council member of finding an alternative tribute for Wyatt Outlaw. “There isn’t a person who bought a brick who had any negative energy at all. Everything was done in love of the city and the county and the 150 years. I don’t believe you erase one piece of history to create another.”

At the same time, Wiggins said she was “110 percent” in favor of “doing whatever it takes to recognize Wyatt Outlaw in this city. It’s been way too long.”

Ricky Hall said the park’s name should remain as is.

Council member Jennifer Talley took particular exception to the suggestion by some commenters that the city of Graham had ignored black history or black contributions to the city since its founding. She suggested that in addition to Outlaw there were other notable black Graham residents who could and should be recognized.

Talley focused on Coley Russell, a prominent black man in Graham, who was also a tinsmith, around the turn of the 18th century until the middle of the 1900’s. A history book on Graham, written by the late Durward Stokes, who was both an Elon history professor and Graham city councilman, includes several vignettes about Color “Cola” Russell in his 1985 book Auction and Action: Historical Highlights of Graham, North Carolina.


Emailed comments on the renaming
During the meeting, two people spoke and the city clerk read the emails and letters from 24 people. Most expressed succinct preferences for the renaming. But most of them are not actually Graham residents, according to research done by The Alamance News. At least three of them have been regular protesters around the Court House during the past year, with two of them having been arrested. Two of the 24 emails (one on each side of the issue) originated not only out of Graham, but outside Alamance County, the newspaper determined.

Of the seven verifiable Graham city residents, five wrote in favor of the renaming while two were opposed, asking that the park remain a tribute to the county’s and city’s history. All of the non-residents (other than one out-of-county resident previously mentioned) wanted to see the park renamed for Outlaw.

The mayor read a letter from former clerk of superior court Louise Wilson, who is a Graham resident, weighing in against the name change, saying it presently represents a “symbol of the diversity of our community.

“To consider renaming the park, regardless of for whom,” Wilson wrote, “especially for an individual or business who had no connection to its establishment, would be not only disrespectful of the founders, but to those individuals who chose to support the purpose for which it was established.”

Ernest Lewis, Jr. focused on what he termed the city’s “persistent racism” as an argument for renaming the park for Outlaw. “It is an opportunity to elevate a man whose life was snuffed out by the greatest threat to the aspirations of the city of Graham, persistent racism.”

Dreama Caldwell, an unsuccessful Democratic candidate for county commissioner in the 2020 elections, also supported the renaming. “In the 151 years from his murder at the hands of local Klu Klux Klan members, Outlaw’s history is just recently been acknowledged by residents and officials. We often hear about the heritage and pride of the confederacy in our county, but have shied away from acknowledging the total truths surrounding that time period. Wyatt Outlaw is a part of Graham’s history that we should intentionally include into our conversations.”

Kristofer Loy was one of several commenters who focused on the current name of the park, sesquicentennial. “Very few of the city’s citizens seem to know the meaning of this word,” Loy said. “Sesquicentennial means 150 years. 2020 was a sesquicentennial. It was the sesquicentennial of the year that white supremacist invaded our town and lynched an African American.”

Another suggested that “Outlaw” was easier to pronounce than “sesquicentennial.”

Judy Hunt Lindley, who opposed the renaming for Outlaw, offered up what she considered a compromise. “The council should adopt a policy to properly vet historical events and figures such as Wyatt Outlaw for historical accuracy and relevance to our county, then commemorate the person or event with a historical plaque or marker to be located in Sesquicentennial Park that provides a full historical context.”

At the end of the discussion, council members discussed whether to appoint a committee to consider alternate methods for honoring Outlaw. Some discussion focused on efforts already underway by the Graham Historical Museum to include more black history of Graham. But all councilmen ultimately deferred to the mayor’s suggestion to challenge the original proponent of the name change, Brown, to conduct fundraising and find an appropriate location for an Outlaw memorial.

Brown’s reaction was rather swift, also turning the issue into a political one with potential implications for mayor and city council races this November.

On Wednesday morning, the NAACP put out a statement from Brown lambasting the council’s decision. “The hypocrisy and lack of empathy of the all white citizen’s council in Graham is astonishing. We can only hope that their example will [mobilize] unprecedented voter registration, education and participation. It is clear that we need elected officials who embrace a future of inclusion instead of those committed to keeping us grounded in a time that justice forgot.” [See his full statement in this edition.]

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