VDT Barber Park

Paul Leavy/The Valdosta Daily Times The Valdosta City Council should be making some decisions on Barber Park in tonight's council meeting.

VALDOSTA — The decision to rename Barber Park has hovered around Valdosta City Councilmen for nearly two years. Tonight, Councilman Joseph “Sonny” Vickers will try to put to rest an issue that has caused an uprising in the community since it was introduced in 2005. Vickers plans to introduce tonight a motion to rename Barber Park in memory of John W. Saunders, the first African-American county extension agent appointed in Lowndes County and founder of the Valdosta-Lowndes County Ham and Egg Show.

“I didn’t want this issue to be framed,” Vickers said. “I don’t have a good taste in my mouth because of the perception.”

A group of citizens approached the Council in the spring of 2005, asking Councilmen to rename Barber Park because of its history in racial segregation. The citizens alleged that the man who owned the property — Ola Barber Pittman — was a racist, and he prohibited African Americans from swimming in the pool or setting foot on the property. The citizens approached the Council several times to rename the park in 2005, but the majority of Councilmen did not vote in favor of renaming the park. Due to city policies, the request could not be brought up again for a period of time.

Nearly a year after the first request, the issue resurfaced and it was placed on the City’s agenda. Councilmen decided in June to appoint a Committee to study the park’s renaming — first to take citizen input and then decide if the park should be renamed and if so, what to name it.

Barber Park Committee Chairman Robert Jefferson led members through the directed process. In August, the Committee made the decision to recommend Veterans Memorial Park as the top choice, with River Street Park, Hampton Memorial Park and James (John) W. Saunders Park as alternatives. On Sept. 21 the Committee made the recommendation to rename the park to Veterans Memorial. Vickers asked the Council to hold off OK’ing the renaming until city representatives had a chance to meet with members of the veterans community.

“They might want to develop some type of memorial, and I wanted them involved,” Vickers said. “That was my reason for wanting to meet with the veterans.”

At the time, Vickers received some protest for postponing the renaming. The Council was supposed to decide the matter on Sept. 5, but Vickers — whose district Barber Park is in — was out of town and unable to attend the meeting. He said during that time he developed a serious illness and was too weak to meet with the veterans community ahead of time. It took all his strength to make it to the Sept. 21 meeting and make the motion to delay the renaming.

City Manager Larry Hanson met with veterans community members on Oct. 11 and found they were not at all in favor of the park being called Veterans Memorial. Representatives from the American Legion, Disabled American Veterans, Veterans of Foreign Wars and other organizations said they would not favor Barber Park as Veterans Memorial Park because it is not big enough to accommodate the large-scale veterans activities the city offers.

Vickers said he did not know before that meeting members of the veterans community would oppose the renaming, but he felt it was pertinent to include their input in the process. He said the city has future plans to designate or create a large park for the veterans community.

“I don’t have a problem with the name Barber Park. I was one in the area who could not go there,” Vickers said. “Barber served on City Council, and I’ve talked to black people who knew him. That was just a period of time. That was the way it was; it was the law.”

In the Barber Park Committee’s recommendation, Jefferson wanted to include the following information, but Committee members who didn’t want to talk about the race issue asked Jefferson to remove the language.

“ ... We further note that we’ve heard the statement ‘The name Barber Park should be changed because Mr. Barber was a racist.’ Our research did not support that statement. Our examination found that Mr. Barber was an inventor, businessman, investor and one who served on Valdosta City Council. Our study further indicated Mr. Barber was one who lived and acted according to the written and unwritten rules of that time (1870-1965).”

Vickers said the Barber Park renaming was brought forth as a racial issue, and it should have been examined more closely to see if there was any merit to the claim. He fully supports the park being renamed, but only because the city purchased the property in 1974 and has the right to do so. “I’m not recommending this name (of John W. Saunders) because of the perception of that time, but because of where we are at now with this issue,” he said.

Vickers said he didn’t favor River Street Park as the name because it was a waste to name the park after the street it’s on when the park could be renamed to honor someone. The third recommendation, Hampton Memorial Park, was in honor of Horace Hampton, who was killed while serving in Vietnam. Vickers said he went to school with Hampton, and though he made a great sacrifice to the country, he was a veteran and may be better honored in a veterans park.

John W. Saunders was the first African-American county extension agent appointed in Lowndes County. He came to Valdosta in 1950 and is credited with founding the Valdosta-Lowndes County Ham and Egg Show. He leaves behind a list of credentials, from being a community activist to furthering 4-H Club and youth activities.

Vickers, who was a friend of Saunders, said Saunders lived by his favorite quote: “He who would be great among you, let him serve.” Saunders died in 1987.

Valdosta City Councilmen meet tonight at 5:30 p.m. in Council Chambers of City Hall.

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