Pirates Plunder Charlotte Forten Park

What do place names mean? Whenever I’m walking around a town or city I look at the names of streets and spaces and assume that they are clues to the history of said town or city but what if these names mean nothing? What if they are just slapped on there to give an impression, rather than as a form of remembrance—and honor? Taking its cue from our long-serving Mayor, Kimberley Driscoll, Salem’s municipal government sees itself and sells itself as progressive, and loses no opportunity to broadcast that message, often in reference to “history”. Actually, this public relations policy predates Mayor’s Driscoll’s reign: Salem had to become a City of “toleration” to compensate for its famous Witch Hunts and enable those who profit from that tragedy to do so with a clear conscience. It seems to me that the virtue-signaling has been switched on to hyperdrive more recently, however. The Trump era afforded Mayor Driscoll many opportunities to expound upon the lessons of real witch hunts as the Mayor of Salem, a tolerant (and hip, never forget hip) city which nevertheless showcases a statue of a fictional television witch in the midst of its most historic square, Town House Square. Two relatively new Salem parks have been named after prominent African-American residents of Salem, even though their locations bear no relation to their namesakes. To my knowledge, Remond Park, on the outskirts of town far from where that family lived and worked, has been the scene of no commemoration or education apart from a sign bearing incorrect information since its naming a few years ago. The name represents the extent of the City’s commitment to the Remonds’ memory. Charlotte Forten Park, once a muddy vacant lot bordering the South River along Derby Street, was created in 2019 and named for Forten (Grimké), the African-American abolitionist, poet and educator who came to Salem in 1854 to live with the Remonds while receiving her education in the city’s recently-segregated public schools and later Salem Normal School, the founding institution of Salem State University. Forten became Salem’s first African-American teacher upon her graduation, and went on to live an active life of advocacy, instruction, and reflection. Salem residents had a rare moment of enfranchisement in that they were actually able to VOTE on the name of the park upon its completion, and Sarah won by a mile, I think! It was a rather rigged election with only a few choices and I can’t even remember what the other names were, but still, it was a somewhat public process, a rarity for Salem. I will share my guilty secret that I didn’t vote for Charlotte (I think I wrote in Luis Emilio). It’s not that I don’t admire her, or believe that she deserved such recognition: it’s rather that I thought that the finished space, which was more modern concrete than timeless green, did not reflect her interests or her character in design or location. You just have to read a few snippets of Charlotte’s Journals to discern her love for nature, and calmness: she was always ready to engage with the world but she needed respites from it as well. The new park, with its limited green space and its mission to be a happening place with a plaza for programs and performances and built-in percussion features, seemed rather disconnected to Charlotte for me, but the City pledged to pay tribute to her life and legacy with more than a name.

Charlotte Forten Park in Salem, shortly after it opened in 2019 in two pictures from my post from that year and a photograph from the City’s facebook page (tables and chairs; the photographer wasn’t identified, sorry! It’s a great photo: this space always looks nicer at night); An excerpt from Charlotte’s Journal: she loved to walk in Harmony Grove Cemetery, which is very close to the house of Caroline Remond Putnam, with whom Charlotte lived for a while.

There’s been talk of a statue of Charlotte for the park: not sure what the status is of that project. I think that would be great, but as of this weekend, I really don’t see how this space can be crafted into anything evocative of Charlotte, because “her” park has been plundered by PIRATES! Real Pirates. The Real Pirates Museum (as opposed to the New England Pirate Museum, just across Derby Street) has opened up adjacent to the park, with a broad walkway carved out of the park and an entryway into and out of the park. This new business advertises its location as “on Charlotte Forten Park” and paintings of pirates embellish its walls, thus framing the park. Charlotte Forten Park appears to have been transformed into Real Pirates Park. And so I guess the answer to my opening question what do place names mean is “not much” in reference to this poor park, even nothing. Perhaps it could be relocated to a more meaningful space with room for remembrance and reflection: that section of Mack Park across from Harmony Grove Cemetery?

Charlotte Forten Park (or Real Pirates Plaza?): April 10, 2022.

8 responses to “Pirates Plunder Charlotte Forten Park

  • dccarletonjr

    Another dead-on post, Donna.

    The naming of the two parks you’ve discussed seems like tokenism at its WORST.

    Samantha gets prime real estate in the city’s heart, whereas the Remonds are relegated to a scrap of liminal land at the end of Salem’s North Street “land of ashes” next to the Beverly-Salem bridge.

    As far as the current situation at Forten Park is concerned, the least the wise solons of Salem could do is plant a nice thick hedge (along a line within city property) to screen the pirate advertisements from view from the people enjoying the park that’s supposed to commemorate Forten’s remarkable life and works.

  • Josiah Fisk

    Donna, excellent post. In this city, one must always ask the question “Qui bono?” Charlotte Forten park benefited two individuals in particular. The former owner of the land was bought out at a price that was $1 million more than its assessed value. Presumably, since this is the person after whom the SSU business school is named, this was not a matter of charity.

    The other individual was the owner of the building housing the new pirate museum (as well as other valuable downtown real estate). That building, as you know, for nearly a century had no windows and no doors in its side wall, which is well over 100′ long. When that building was built, it was legal to build right up to the side lot line. Today, a setback of 5′ would have been required for any building built on what became the park, but that is still not enough to permit much light or air, or commercial pedestrian traffic.

    By making the adjacent lot a park, the city transformed 100+ feet of blank party wall into 100+ feet of downtown retail frontage on a waterfront park — a move that added, conservatively, $500,000 to $1 million to the value of the property. The city further enhanced this by reserving a strip of the park the entire length of that side of the building to be leased to the building’s owner at an attractive price.

    Did Salem citizens benefit? Certainly, to some extent. But one must still ask why the city did so much for two wealthy individuals while paying for most if not all of the project with public money.

    • daseger

      Wow, I didn’t know that back story! Very interesting, but also, to me, sausage-making: I prefer not to look. But I do want to dig deep into the histories of places and people and remembrance, and I don’t think this pirate park is a place that honors Charlotte Forten anymore. I’m not sure it ever did, but maybe it could have, but not now.

      • Josiah Fisk

        Donna, yes, I agree, it’s a good question to what extent this honors her legacy. As to sausage-making, of course I don’t enjoy watching it being made either. I will only say that there’s the sausage you can buy at the Cheese Shop, and the sausage whose ingredients would make it unsalable as cat food. I like at least to know which I’m being asked to consume 🙂

  • Brian Bixby

    After reading this, I thought of my old home town’s naming policies. Quite a few streets have historic names, relating to old families, but in most cases the names on places are essentially meaningless. Unless one knew the person or family, or look them up, the names are just names, even the historic ones. Cambridge, where I live, is a smidgen better: streets and “squares” (often just three-point intersections) at least give a one-line description of who the place was named after. (The street I live on was named after a WWII soldier who died in combat.)

    So, there are several possibilities here: a) names that are just affixed on a place; b) names that are affixed on a place with a historic association, not explained at the place; c) names affixed to a place and celebrated there in some way; d) both b & c. And what you want (and what I want, too) is (d).

  • Nancy

    I’m enjoying your recent topic, Donna…I have not much knowledge of Salem and pirates, though I now intend to find out more! As a side note, I believe the author Katherine Howe is currently working on a book about pirates. I’ve read all of her books except Vanderbilt and I intend to read that soon. I know you’re not a fan of historical fiction, but I do like it very much, as long as the research is good. Historical fiction pulls me in, and then, if I am interested enough, I seek the facts around it.

  • Dale Gephart

    In 1854 this land was part of a wharf that belonged to Connie Gephart’s great great grandfather Captain Oliver Thayer. He was in the lumber business

    • daseger

      Hi Dale, yes I’ve heard of him. When the naming was being discussed and voted on, I researched the parcel to see if we could find something more authentic.

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