Folks at Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Park — the long and now official name of the south Minneapolis park alongside Interstate 35W — are ready to show off what the King heritage means for an inner-city park.
A new black-history-themed playground aimed at elementary and younger children opens there Saturday at 1:30 p.m. It’s the latest in a series of improvements with a civil rights theme, which follow a painful community split over a dog park proposal in 2010.
At $675,000, the playground will cost about three times what the Park Board usually spends on a generic playground replacement. A Legacy Council formed after the dog park issue erupted in 2010 helped to raise part of the extra cost from private and other public sources.
The dog park proposal made some black residents realize that they’d become complacent about the park, which was renamed from Nicollet Field after King’s 1968 assassination.
“We took our eyes off the prize,” said Sandra Richardson, who grew up in an adjoining neighborhood as the freeway was creating a divide through south Minneapolis. She remembers when Ralph Bunche, a Nobel Peace Prize winner like King and a U.N. diplomat, spoke at the ceremony to rename the park and dedicate an abstract sculpture with a freedom theme. Now she co-chairs the council.
First, some healing was needed. The dog park idea created a rift between neighbors seeking to expand the park’s recreational amenities and neighbors who considered it hallowed ground.
“It was painful for us because we had worked with people on the other side on other community issues,” Richardson said. “It was painful for them, too.”
A bridge-building series of dialogues ensued to try to give people of each race a sense of the other’s racial perspective. A multiracial book group was formed. A mural featuring King was added inside the park building in 2013, the 50th anniversary of the Washington civil rights march. Benches featuring King quotations were added at the sculpture last year.
Learning through play
The playground evolved from a concept originated by Minneapolis artist Esther Osayande, that was refined with St. Paul artist Shalette Cauley-Wandrick. They envisioned using some notable inventors, historic figures and events to give children a sense of their history while they play. “They learn through play and that’s their work,” Cauley-Wandrick said.
There’s play equipment such as a train with nearby information on Minnesota inventor Frederick McKinley Jones, who made mobile refrigeration practical for trucks and trains. There’s also information on the drip lubricator for locomotives, a design by Elijah McCoy that trainmen so preferred that they asked for “the real McCoy.”
There’s a flag commemorating the Red Hand Division, a World War I black outfit, a climbable “mountaintop” with King’s likeness and a structure commemorating the Edmund Pettus Bridge of Selma, Ala., a key civil rights site. Much of the background on these events can be accessed through scannable QR codes. There’s a stair step made from five stacked oversized books by notable black authors. There’s more typical playground equipment as well, including playable instruments, swings and slides, an overhead track line, and game tables.
There are also cultural references such as Adinkra symbols, which derive from West Africa. One large one at the playground’s center connotes unity through diversity. It’s surrounded by a circle of impressions of footprints from the feet of children who use the park.
It’s not a black park
Saturday’s events include an 11 a.m. rally at Sabathani Community Center, 310 E. 38th St., a noon march to the park, drumming and other events at 1 p.m. and entertainment, games, food and other family events following the opening of the playground.
Although the park celebrates black heritage, organizers said they hope for inclusiveness. Cauley-Wandrick, for example, said she was adamant that the entrance spell out “hello” in several languages. “I don’t want white people thinking, ‘I can’t go here — it’s a black park’ ” Osayande said.
They have ambitions for more at the park, including indoor educational kiosks and an outdoor amphitheater for public discussion of events that spark rights discussion today, such as issues of policing. “We want to keep in the forefront that injustices of 50 years ago have changed a little in shape and form but we still must fight for justice,” Richardson said.
“If we don’t tell about our history, it’s going to go away,” Cauley-Wandrick said. “We have to keep our elders’ stories alive.”