February 7, 2014 10:40:29 AM
District 3 Supervisor Marvel Howard informally handed off short- and long-term Unity Park planning responsibilities to a new group of concerned citizens Monday.
The group is now assigned the tasks of planning an unveiling ceremony and deciding the criteria for future monuments, including whether or not to induct local residents who worked to better race relations.
If the group is able to secure donations, members tentatively said they will honor the late Starkville-based physician, writer and civil rights leader Douglas Conner and the historic "Game of Change" when the Mississippi State University men's basketball team defied the governor by stealing away to play an integrated Loyola University team in the NCAA Tournament in East Lansing, Mich., in 1963
Also, members reached a consensus that physical changes to the park -- the removal of a raised, brick area -- should be made to provide a seating area.
Howard hinted at the group serving as a race relations committee once Unity Park is open to the public. The new group is comprised of residents Robbie Coblentz, Charles Evans, Ava Moore, Brother Rogers, Oktibbeha County Chancery Clerk Monica Banks and Chris Taylor, the local NAACP leader.
The group will meet again at 5:30 p.m. Feb. 24 in the courthouse's second-floor board room.
The park, a public green space located between Mugshots and the Oktibbeha County Sheriff's Department, contains seven plaques meant to honor national figures who championed race relations and educational efforts during the last century. Five of those plaques are engraved with the likenesses of civil rights pioneers, but they have remained covered from public view by tarps since the county education building opened in 2011. Unity Park was part of the $2 million project that led to the building's construction.
Attempts to open Unity Park in 2013 fell victim to numerous delays and a lack of clarity from the board. Supervisors commissioned Joe Williams, District 5's representative, to seek public input on the monuments' future in January. Williams met with concerned residents, some of whom comprise the new Unity Park group, numerous times, but the board could not come up with a consensus on how or when to open the park.
Repeatedly, county leaders said they wanted to keep their hands clear of a process that would designate local honorees for the two blank plaques. It wasn't about who was honored, they said, but who would be excluded.
Howard attempted to organize a dedication ceremony, but the event never came to fruition.
During informal discussions Monday, the park committee came to a consensus to honor Connor and the "Game of Change" on the two remaining blank plaques. Residents made the same requests and also asked that the board authorize a plaque honoring former NAACP President A.D. Johnson during the Williams-led discussions last year.
Supervisors declined the previous request due to funding concerns -- engraving costs could run about $800 per monument -- but Howard hinted at traction developing for the proposal. First, he said the Columbus-based architectural firm Pryor & Morrow, the same group that designed Unity Park, could be interested in making a future monetary contribution -- the amount needed to engrave one plaque, basically -- or in-kind services donation. Howard said he'll soon approach the group about the potential gift.
Howard also said former County Administrator Don Posey, a MSU graduate who was on the school's basketball team during the "Game of Change," had previously discussed with him a plan to seek private donations from university alumni for the other plaque.
A call to Posey went unreturned Thursday.
"I'd love to see it," Howard said in reference to the Unity Park group serving as a local race relations committee in the future.
"There are a lot of good things going on here, but a group focused on the future would be a benefit for the community," he said Monday.
Carl Smith covers Starkville and Oktibbeha County for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter @StarkDispatch
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