Community inaugurates Black history-themed MLK playground

 Installation is first of its kind in the nation

Legacy Council members (l-r) Mary Merrill, Verlena Matey-Keke, Charles Mays, Doris Christopher, Shirlee Callender and Barbara Cassius
Legacy Council members (l-r) Mary Merrill, Verlena Matey-Keke, Charles Mays, Doris Christopher, Shirlee Callender and Barbara Cassius

Community members got their first taste of a new interactive playground centered around the Civil Rights Movement and African American history on Saturday, August 22 at MLK Jr. Park in South Minneapolis. The playground launch was the focal point of this year’s Celebrate Our Beloved Community event and the latest in ongoing park renovations following the rededication of the Freedom Form II sculpture in August of 2014.

The celebrations got off to a rousing start with a rally in the parking lot of Sabathani Community Center, where a Who’s Who of community leaders and organizations, school board members, Legacy Council members, elected officials and more united to commemorate the occasion.

(Watch video highlights from the “Celebrate Our Beloved Community: MLK Jr. Park Playground Dedication” below)

Among the speakers were Minneapolis Public Schools Interim Superintendent Michael Goar, newly elected NAACP Minneapolis President Nekima Levy-Pounds, and Seward Co-op Diversity and Community Engagement Manager LaDonna Sanders-Redmond, who stressed the importance of food access and justice, reading a passage from the book Dr. King’s Refrigerator.

Community leaders Al Flowers, Spike Moss, MAD DADS’ V.J. Smith, Legacy Council co-chair Charles Mays fired up the crowd. Malik Njie, who read quotes from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., added a youthful voice to the proceedings.

After the rally, attendees took to the streets en route to the park with the Sabathanites Drum Corps leading the way. Upon arrival, marchers found the playground already abuzz with the excitement and wonder of kids, who began the giddy work of christening the new playground prior to the official ribbon-cutting.

Marchers entering the park for the dedication.
Marchers entering the park for the dedication.

Among the features for the kids to explore: a climbable mountain top and replica of the Edmund Pettus Bridge; an educational book staircase that pays tribute to the struggle for equal education; a flag from the Red Hand Division WWI African American regiment; a train and refrigeration truck honoring Minnesota’s Frederick McKinley Jones, inventor of refrigerator and air-conditioning technologies; and QR (quick response) codes with links to take visitors to an African American Registry website for more information.

Attendee Dona C. Evans, a social worker, said she was glad to see the park established. “I’d been hearing about it when it was being formed and they were working through the challenges,” said Evans. “A playground is an excellent tool to teach children. I thought it was very clever… And I can see it being here for generations.”

Beyond the playground, bounce houses and face-painters were also on hand to keep the kids entertained, while the main stage featured remarks from Larry Fitzgerald, whose son Larry Fitzgerald, Jr. funded the park’s new basketball court, and Park Commissioner Brad Bourn, to name a few. Judge Pamela Alexander provided the keynote, and Marie Graham, the Sounds of Blackness and the Kevin Washington Quartet offered spirited musical selections.

Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin credited the Legacy Council for all its hard work in making the event a success and noted that the playground celebration felt sweeter due to its hard-fought journey. “This is a spectacular event. The playground itself is spectacular, but the gathering of people even more so,” said McLaughlin.

“You know, this came out of a battle,” he said. “It came out of a battle over a dog park, and the community said, ‘No, that’s not going to happen here.’ And they managed to get organized and work through it and get to this beautiful outcome… When you get something that comes out of a battle, people show up for the celebration,” McLaughlin said with a laugh.

“The County contributed financially to the park, to the playground,” he continued. “We did it out of the sales tax money that we put in place for the ballpark — Target Field — and so that’s why we can invest in this. We made it a priority and we’re proud to fund it.

“We’ve been funding soccer fields, baseball fields and other playgrounds all over Hennepin County, but this one I am particularly proud of because of the history and the way it came about, and the community forging and creating this idea and moving ahead,” McLaughlin said.

The MSR also caught up with Esther Osayande and Shalette Cauley-Wandrick, two of the public artists contributing to the project, to get their thoughts now that the playground has been unveiled. “I’m happy,” said Osayande. “It’s not everything that we hoped it would be, but that’s partly because of the cost and space… So this is a seed…a seed that I hope is planted and grows and spreads to other communities and other parks. This is just the beginning,” she said.

When asked what she felt the playground was missing, Osayande said, “The original design had about eight inventors. I would’ve liked to have seen some of the female inventors that I used… Hopefully, that will happen in the future.”

Ultimately Osayande said that she was honored to be a part of the project and has plenty more ideas and concepts for the future if asked. “I think that this is a good start. I think it’s great for children to learn while they’re playing; I hope they’ll learn the true legacy of Dr. King’s message, that in the eyes of God we are all equal.”

Cauley-Wandrick also mentioned the lack of funds to fulfill her broader vision, citing plans for an amphitheater and more instruments and inventions as additional things she would’ve liked to see. But she stated she was pleased overall and was hopeful for the future: “I’m just happy that the children are excited. That’s my main thing. It looks a little bit like I thought it would… I have other ideas, but I’m happy… It came a long way from what it was. We’re thankful.

“One thing I fought for was the QR codes. Take that cell phone and turn it into a tool. That’s why the QR code is there. So kids could learn and ask, ‘What is this train about?’ ‘Who are these people?’ and take it from there…

“The outcome may be that they [become] the next inventors… This gives them an avenue to ask, ‘What can I be [when I grow up]?’ A lot of times kids don’t have the opportunity to have imagination, so this gives them a place to nourish [their imaginations] and dream,” said Cauley-Wandrick.

The new MLK playground appeared to be an instant hit with kids.

Legacy Council member Shirlee Callender told the MSR after the event that she felt the playground launch was a success. “I thought it was exceptionally nice and we had a good crowd. I think people were excited about it and I think very pleased with what they saw.”

Local historian Mahmoud El-Kati said he was especially impressed by the tenacity of the Legacy Council. “The people who organized this need to be commended,” said El-Kati. “They redesigned the park, and not only that, they did the work and set an example for other people to follow across the country.

“That’s being diligent about this thing called justice, dedicating a park with historical references and inventors… I recommend this as a national program” he said, adding, “We all ought to be doing this.”

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MLK Park: How can it better honor Dr. King?