Austin activists push to change Columbus Park's name

Temaka Williams and other West Siders have started a petition, talks with officials

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By Igor Studenkov

Contributing Reporter

On the heels of a successful campaign to rename North Lawndale's Douglas Park after Fredrick Douglass, three Austin residents are hoping to achieve the same kind of name change with Columbus Park, 500 S. Central Ave. in Austin. 

The campaign to rename the Austin park was started by Temaka Williams, an IT professional and a member of the Westside Branch NAACP.  Photographer and community organizer Vanessa Stokes and labor union organizer Crystal Gardner are currently helping to spearhead the effort. 

The trio launched a petition to build up support and they are looking to do further online outreach in the future. Unlike the students who pushed for the Douglas Park renaming, they don't have any particular alternative name in mind, saying that they would support any name that the community supports. The petition states that they would support renaming the park after one of the "many notable Black community leaders." 

Columbus Park is the largest park in the Austin community. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, its field house hosted a number of programs and activities, and Columbus Park Refectory, 701 W. Jackson Blvd., had been a popular spot for community meetings and events. 

The three women behind the petition have all been involved in the community in some capacity. Stokes serves as a co-president of Austin Town Hall Park Advisory Council, a director of Austin's Special Service Area 72 and a board member of A House in Austin nonprofit. Gardner is a union organizer at American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 31 and  founder of the Activate Austin Facebook group. 

According to the joint statement by the trio, around three years ago, Williams was moved by a  national conversation "about the removal of historical monuments that remind us of the trauma brought on by systemic racism."  

A man who, as the petition put it, "could be described as a greedy invader who enslaved indigenous people" fit the bill. Williams reached out to Stokes to find out how a park's name can be changed. 

The protests that erupted in the wake of George Floyd, as well as the successful Douglass Park campaign and the protests that resulted in removal of several Christopher Columbus statues throughout Chicago inspired them to "proceed with the idea and just make it happen." At the time, Gardner had the same idea and reached out to Stokes.

"[The three of us] quickly got on a Zoom call and started organizing the efforts to rename Columbus Park," Gardner said. 

The trio's petition simply asks the signatories to support the name change. The goal is to collect 200 signatures. As of Sept. 17, it  had 160 signatures.

Gardner said that they plan to reach out to members of the South Austin Neighborhood Association (SANA). They have already reached out to Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th), whose ward includes the park, but have not yet received a response. 

They said they've also been talking with Art Richardson, the regional manager for the park district's central region, which includes the West Side Parks. They said Richardson has  includes, has been "very helpful and forthcoming with the process." 

Gardner said that they wanted "as much community support as possible," not just in Austin but across the entire city. And she said that they wanted Austin residents specifically to decide what the park's new name should be. 

"This is a collective community process," she said. "It is important to engage with the Austin community about the changes around what we would like to see in our community."

The petition is available at https://actionnetwork.org/petitions/austin-community-renaming-of-columbus-park

Contact:
Email: igorst3@hotmail.com

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