For more than 80 years, a seven-acre park in East Nashville has borne the name of Fred Douglas. No one has any idea who that is.
Local historians have dug through the public record, poured over city directories, and scampered over the branches of the family trees of the two prominent Nashville-area Douglas families looking for Fred. And there is no Fred. None of the extant Douglases have come forward to say Fred belongs to them.
The reason, of course, is so seemingly obvious, it’s hard to believe that it never occurred to anybody in the 81 years since the park opened: The park was meant to be named for Frederick Douglass, the former slave turned abolitionist who in 1873 called Nashville “a city famous for its elegance and refinement” and described its people as “men from Tennessee, and as willful as Old Hickory himself.” After a trip in the 1890s, he left with a different impression after visiting the city during a high-water mark for lynching; upon returning to the north, he called for the South to be occupied by federal troops to stop extrajudicial killings.
In any event, in 1935, the Nashville Parks Board voted to name a new park in East Nashville Douglas Park and in the margins of the minutes, someone added “Fred.” And so Fred Douglas Park it has been, despite no prominent Nashvillian bearing that name, one of the those shoulder-shrug-inspiring Nashville oddities like pronouncing Lafayette as “LUH-fayette.” With no evidence that the spelling was mistake, there was little impetus to change the name, particularly since Metro’s park regulations prevent the changing of a name of a park (though Old Center Park became Cedar Hill Park in 1964).
But local historian David Ewing found, tucked away in the archives of The Tennessean, an item from June of 1936: “Final plans are now being made by East Nashville leaders for the parade and field day activities which will be staged at the Frederick Douglass Park next Saturday. The plot of ground, bought for negroes of East Nashville, is located on Fite Street in the Bransford Addition. The parade will form at the Meigs School and will begin at 10 o’clock.”
But if the park was meant to be named for the abolitionist, how did it end up misspelled? As the Nashville Scene’s Betsy Phillips notes, it wasn’t unusual for white Southerners to refer to Frederick Douglass as “Fred” in an effort to infantilize him. As for “Douglass,” even the prominent Douglas families don’t always agree on the spelling, with Douglas Bend Road and Douglass Chapel Methodist Church bearing two different spellings despite being named for the same branch of the family.
Tuesday night, the Metro Council approved a resolution asking the Parks Board not to rename the park — which would violate regulations — but to “clarify” the name of Fred Douglas Park as Frederick Douglass Park. The board is set to take it up at its March 7 meeting after a report from the Parks Naming Committee.
The resolution is sponsored by Councilman Scott Davis and co-sponsored by Bob Mendes and Angie Henderson.
Councilman Davis is grateful for historian Ewing and the valuable information he provided and would like to extend a special thanks to him.