Dr. Martin Luther King Park: The Naming of a Park

The Minneapolis neighborhoods near Dr. Martin Luther King Park have become embroiled in an argument over the name of the park and whether that name confers special meaning on park land. At issue is whether designating a portion of the park as a dog park, where dogs could be off leash, would desecrate the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Here are the facts as recorded from the Proceedings of the Board of Park Commissioners, January 1st to December 31st For Year 1968:

April 17: Under the heading “Petitions and Communications.” Minneapolis NAACP requests Nicollet Field be renamed “Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Park.” The board referred the request to the Planning Committee.

June 19: Also under “Petitions and Communications.” The Southside Activities Council expresses unanimous support for renaming Nicollet Field, “Martin Luther King. Jr. Memorial Park.”

October 9: After amending the park board’s Policy Statement to permit parks to be named after “persons of other than local significance” when “appropriate and desirable,” the board voted to change the name of Nicollet Field to “Dr. Martin Luther King Park.”

There is no explanation for the inconsistency of the use of Dr., Jr. or Memorial in the various proposals and the final resolution. But there has been no consistency in the use of Dr. or Jr. in general usage then or now.

I was curious about the origin of the park board’s Policy Statement on the naming of parks. I did find an entry in the Proceedings for May 2, 1934 that I believe established the board’s policy.

A bit of background: The park board had nearly completed the construction of a park across the street from the new post office downtown in 1934. It was a park the park board did not want to build, but was convinced to build by the City Council. The U.S. Postal Service wanted a new post office in Minneapolis, but was reluctant to build one without a proper approach or environment. The USPS wanted a park. The City Council finally persuaded the park board to go along. The park board did so reluctantly, especially given the colossal failure of The Gateway park only a couple blocks west.

So the park board had a new park, with a grand new statue — the Pioneers Statue, which was moved for a second time last summer to B. F. Nelson Park. All the park needed was a name. Everyone had suggestions, but three names seemed to generate the most interest.

Lafayette Park. May 20, 1934 would be the centennial of Lafayette’s death and some thought the park should be named for him and dedicated on that date.

Roald Amundsen Park. This was the choice of the Norwegian community. Amundsen, a Norwegian explorer, was the first to reach the South Pole in 1912 and had died in 1928 while on a rescue mission in the Arctic.

General Pulaski Park. The Polish community proposed naming the park for Kazimierz Pulaski the Polish soldier of the Revolutionary War who was credited with creating the first American cavalry unit. An effort to rename Bottineau Field for Pulaski had failed the year before.

Perhaps not wishing to offend any nationality, the Special Committee on Nomenclature offered a new policy for the park board on May 2, 1934. The statement noted that the City Council and the Board of Education had chosen to name streets and schools to perpetuate the names of Presidents, explorers of local and international fame, and artists, writers and scientists of world-wide importance, “all of which your committee believes to be commendable.”

“However, some official body should lay particular emphasis on perpetuating legendary and place names of local significance and the names of those of our own citizens who from time to time have played important parts in the molding of our city — its physical structure, its artistic and spiritual background.

“Our parks are admirably suited for such a purpose, and such a purpose most admirably furthers the work of this Board in instilling in the minds of the youth who frequent our parks the ideals of useful citizenship…Here is something intimate — some one of us has achieved honor — our fathers knew him — we know his descendants. We too might achieve such honor by leading exemplary and highly useful lives.”

So, the committee recommended that “your honorable Board restrict the names to those commemorating men and women of local civic achievement and historical importance and legendary and place names of local significance…”

The statement was adopted and apparently still in place in 1968. At the meeting after the policy was adopted (May 16, 1934), the same committee recommended the name “Pioneers Square” for the new park that until then had been referred to simply as “Post Office Square” or the more Orwellian “Block 20.”

It was this policy that the park board had to amend in October 1968 to be able to rename Nicollet Park, Dr. Martin Luther King Park.

By the way, Nicollet Park was not named directly for the French cartographer Joseph Nicollet. It was named for the avenue named for him, which formed the park’s western border.

David C. Smith,  minneapolisparkhistory[at]q.com

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