Danville will rename Batewood Park after Michael Smith

Published 8:38 am Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Danville won’t have a street named after the late African-American funeral home director Michael M. Smith — but it will have a park renamed in Smith’s honor.

City commissioners voted unanimously Monday to rename Batewood Park along South Second Street “Michael M. Smith Memorial Park.” The name change was made instead of a previous proposal from Danville resident Margaret Calhoun to rename Fackler Street after Smith.

Smith died Aug. 29 at the age of 77. He worked as a funeral director and mortician in Danville, serving countless families for more than 50 years, according to his obituary.

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“Michael Smith buried both black and white people,” Bob Trumbo, a lifelong Danville resident and retired educator, said during an October discussion of the proposed renaming. “… And a lot of times, he helped the families out financially himself.”

Many concerned with the renaming issue view the Fackler Street name as an homage to Danville’s seminal historian Calvin Fackler. A large stretch of Fackler Street was previously renamed for former Danville Mayor Roy Arnold many years ago, leaving today only a two-block stretch named for Fackler.

The proposed street renaming generated a lot of controversy, as numerous people weighed in during a 30-day public comment period, both in support of Smith’s legacy and in defense of keeping the Fackler name.

Fackler Street was Fackler Lane “as far back as 1888,” according to information provided to city by Mary Girard with the Boyle County Library.

It was officially named Fackler Street in 1897, according to archives of The Kentucky Advocate, and was “most likely” named not for Calvin Fackler, but for John Turner Fackler, “who lived in a house in that area for many, many years,” Girard wrote.

Girard’s research was one of nine items city commissioners reviewed as they considered the renaming. There was also a letter from Bob Trumbo, Calhoun and others in support of the name change; a petition in support of the change signed by 207 people; four letters or emails from residents opposed to the change; and a recent Advocate-Messenger article about the issue.

Following closure of the public comment period and review of all the comments submitted, Commissioner J.H. Atkins made the proposal Monday night to rename Batewood Park instead.

“I don’t think Michael would want to be part of a controversy, OK?” Atkins said. “So I would like to suggest that the city consider … going from Batewood Park to Michael M. Smith Memorial Park. Because Batewood Homes is still going to be there, so we’re not taking anything away.”

Atkins suggestion came after other commission members noted that the city already has a Smith Street, so also having a Michael M. Smith Street could cause confusion for first responders.

City Manager Ron Scott said there had been interest in renaming the road directly in front of the late Smith’s business, Smith-Jackson Funeral Home, but that road is actually a private drive. Smith’s family was not interested in giving the city an easement on the road in order to rename it, Scott said.

No opposition to Atkins’ proposal was expressed by other commissioners; members of the public; or Calhoun or Trumbo — both of whom attended the meeting.

Perros asked Calhoun if the proposal was OK with her.

“Yes, because I live on J.E. Woods Drive right across from the park,” she said.

Trumbo thanked city commissioners for taking “abuse” from the public during the public-comment period.

Ben Kleppinger/ben.kleppinger@amnews.com
Bob Trumbo, a retired educator and lifelong Danville resident, thanks the Danville City Commission for working through the process of considering a name change for Fackler Street.

“Naming a street is a hard thing — especially if the street has already been named,” he said. “So I appreciate the effort that you all have taken and so does Ms. Calhoun. We appreciate the effort that you all have made, and listened to us. When you listen to people, sometimes they feel like they’re a part of the community.”

Perros said he was glad a good solution was found.

“I’ve been in a twist trying to figure this out, and I think frankly, personally, I think that’s going to be much more visible than a little old green-and-white sign that people pass by at 45 miles an hour,” he said.

“They really do speed,” Calhoun responded, earning a round of laughter. “I’m not laughing. You need to put a stoplight at J.E. Woods Drive.”

Commissioner Denise Terry said going through the city’s renaming process has been a “learning experience.”

“I didn’t know everything that the Fackler name meant, and I did not have the privilege of knowing Mr. Smith, either,” she said. “I have learned about both of these fine men and what they have contributed to Danville.”

Batewood history

The Batewood name was created from the last names of the important African-American historical figures John W. Bate and J.E. Wood, according to newspaper archives.

Bate spent 59 years as an educator of African-American children in Danville from the late 1800s into the middle of the 20th century, impacting the lives of thousands of African-American students in Danville. Wood was a prominent minister in Danville in the early 1900s, who served as pastor of First Baptist Church.

In 1951, the Danville Municipal Housing Commission began construction of new low-income housing units. A 34-unit neighborhood for whites only was constructed on the north side of Danville on Queen Street, while a 36-unit neighborhood for blacks only was constructed off of Second Street and named Batewood Homes, according to newspaper archives.

“The Negro project to be known as Bate-Wood Homes … will be located on South Second Street at the junction of South Second and Terrell Drive,” an article from October 1951 reads. “… Prior to the time of completion, the city has agreed to remove the present city dump and to cover the entire area with dirt, which will later be used for playground purposes.”

After completion of Batewood Homes, construction began on Batewood Park in the same area around 1954, according to Advocate-Messenger archives.

By February 1955, Batewood Park “development was started, with the grading and hauling of fill dirt, and 15 trees donated by The Advocate-Messenger,” according to a newspaper article at the time.

Atkins said Monday that for a long time, Batewood Park had a swimming pool used by the city’s African-American population. Michael Smith was one of the first certified lifeguards to work at that pool, he said.

Trumbo said Batewood Park’s pool was built so black people could have a safe place to swim. They weren’t allowed to swim at the Sunnyside Park pool because it was only for white people, he said. Instead, blacks had to go out Clifton Road east of Danville to swim in the Dix River.

“There were too many people that were getting killed by going out to Clifton. There were several people that died,” he said. “… At the end of Clifton, there is a little area where boats can dock, but as you go out in the river itself, it gets a little deep and I think you had some undercurrents or something, so several people were killed out there.”

After that happened, “a committee of citizens, black and white, got together and said, ‘let’s establish a swimming pool for blacks,’ in a sense,” Trumbo said. “It was open to everyone. But at least we knew where we could go swim.”

Trumbo said he was one of many young black men who learned to swim at Batewood Park’s pool.

Atkins, a retired educator who sometimes does performances as John W. Bate, said there’s a lot of African-American history in Danville, but it’s not been made nearly as visible as the history of whites.

Ben Kleppinger/ben.kleppinger@amnews.com
Danville City Commissioner J.H. Atkins talks about renaming Batewood Park after Michael M. Smith during Monday’s city commission meeting.

“If you ever take my African-American history tests about the City of Danville, you’ll realize that there are lots of people of color that we cannot, our kids cannot see as they walk in the community,” he said. “So there is a move on by some of us to pick out some other places and some other names of people (who) we think need to be a part of that historical trace of this town.”

‘A rational solution’

Atkins made the motion to rename Batewood Park and Commissioner Kevin Caudill seconded. The motion passed unanimously.

Commissioner Rick Serres asked that the motion include a provision that a plaque in the park honoring John W. Bate remain in place.

“I want to make sure that as we look at that park, that whatever plaque is down there for Mr. Bate — that that stays, because that’s part of the history there as well,” he said.

City Attorney Stephen Dexter said he thinks everything that happened in determining whether to rename Fackler Street shows the city’s policy on renaming streets is a good one.

“I think the policy worked. This is a situation where it was an exercise of civic involvement, where you had a presentation of a good idea and a gentleman that was recognized, and also a re-learning of history, of a historic name for the City of Danville and what that individual means to the community,” Dexter said. “In the process, you … came up with a rational solution, you looked at both sides of it, both of which were presented professionally, which I think is a testament to the community and the commission.”