Members of the Vancouver City Council got an earful Monday night over a topic that seems, at first glance, rather pedestrian.

They’re debating what to name a new park — and the discussion has raised big questions about race and language.

A 9.5-acre parcel of land donated by Vancouver philanthropists Ed and Dollie Lynch.

A 9.5-acre parcel of land donated by Vancouver philanthropists Ed and Dollie Lynch.

Molly Solomon/OPB

At the heart of the issue is a 9.5-acre plot of land in Northwest Vancouver that sits adjacent to the property of Ed and Dollie Lynch, local philanthropists who donated the land more than a decade ago. At the time, city councilors planned to thank the family by naming the park in their honor: Lynch Park.

But residents are pushing back on that idea. They say the word “lynch,” even if it’s someone’s name, triggers painful associations, especially for communities of color.

“It is personal. I actually feel that word,” said Cecelia Towner, the founder of Black Lives Matter Vancouver.

Towner came across the proposed Lynch Park after reviewing documents for Stronger Vancouver, a comprehensive package of community improvements the city will consider next year. Towner, who is African-American and lives in the neighborhood where the park is being proposed, said the word “lynch” brings up a dark chapter in American history in which black people were publicly hanged.

Cecelia Towner is the founder of Black Lives Matter Vancouver, Washington.

Cecelia Towner is the founder of Black Lives Matter Vancouver, Washington.

Molly Solomon/OPB

“I’m sorry that people have that last name, but that last name should not be associated with a public space,” she said. “It’s erasing the horrible things that were done to black people.”

The dispute over a park name is just the latest in a movement across the country and in the Pacific Northwest to shed racially offensive names or leaders with troubling pasts from institutions.

In 2017, the Centennial School District voted to drop “Lynch” from the names of three schools in Gresham.

Oregon State University and the University of Oregon have renamed buildings whose namesakes had historical links to racist beliefs.

And in 2015, the Oregon Board of Education backed a push to change the mascots at more than a dozen Oregon high schools that were Native American-themed.

In Washington, an effort was spearheaded to change dozens of racially offensive geographical names, including Negro Creek, Squaw Lake, Coon Creek and Chinaman’s Hat.

The issue over the proposed Vancouver park has come up before City Council at the past two citizen forums, a space where the public can air concerns. At the Nov. 26 meeting, Mayor Anne McEnerny-Ogle told the audience that “Lynch Park” had been a placeholder name. The city has now amended the proposed name to “Ed and Dollie Lynch Park.”

In a memo to the mayor and councilors, Vancouver City Manager Eric Holmes called the naming of the park a learning opportunity.

“As Vancouver becomes more diverse, we are looking to improve the City’s capacity to be successful in meeting the needs of all our citizens in an inclusive and equitable manner,” wrote Holmes, who said the association between the name Lynch and the word never occurred to anyone at the city.

But for some, leaving “Lynch” in the park name still rings offensive.

“It will not be simply Ed and Dollie Lynch Park. It will be Lynch Park, whether we mean for it to or not,” said Christina Smith, an English professor at Clark College. “Words exist outside of our people. And it won’t be today, it won’t be tomorrow, it might not even be 10 years from now, but the community is going to change.”

Residents packed a Vancouver city council meeting on Dec. 10, 2018 to discuss the proposed Ed and Dollie Lynch Park.

Residents packed a Vancouver city council meeting on Dec. 10, 2018 to discuss the proposed Ed and Dollie Lynch Park.

Molly Solomon/OPB

Monday’s council meeting also brought out supporters of the park name, who were confounded that a dispute over a family’s name was even taking place.

“I’m deeply troubled about the need to speak to you tonight, troubled that we are even debating the naming of a community park in honor of Ed and Dollie Lynch,” said Elson Strahan, the former president and CEO of the Historic Trust.

Strahan spoke of Ed and Dollie Lynch’s prolific philanthropy to the city of Vancouver. Dollie passed away in 2010, and Ed followed in 2015 — but to many, their legacy lives on. Strahan recalled how Ed led an effort to preserve the Academy, one of Washington’s oldest buildings that was a former orphanage and school. His donation of $2 million helped allow the Historic Trust to acquire the iconic building.

“To fail to name this parcel of land ‘Ed and Dollie Lynch Park,’ which they donated to create such a wonderful community asset, is more than misguided,” Strahan said. “It will be an affront that disrespects all that the Lynches have given and done for Vancouver for many years and future generations.” 

Former longtime City Councilor Pat Jollota said promises were made to the Lynch family when the land was donated.

“We made it in good faith,” she said.

Former Mayor Royce Pollard urged the Council to keep the Lynch name on the park and said the dispute has resulted in running “a good people’s name through the mud.”

“The fog and confusion surrounding the name of this park have confused someone’s name with the action of racists,” Pollard said. “There’s no win for anyone if you change the name.”

No descendants from the Lynch family were present at Monday’s council meeting, but a statement was sent from their son, Michael Lynch.

“Our hope is one day the park will benefit our entire community while honoring Ed and Dollie Lynch as it was intended and promised to them over 15 years ago,” Michael wrote. “Our focus will continue to be on the pressing needs of our community; specifically on the issues that bring us together, and not on those that attempt to tear us apart.”

It’s unclear when the city will next take up the issue, but City Manager Eric Holmes said it will likely include future listening sessions when the park enters a formal naming process.

Following Monday’s testimony, Holmes summed up the discussion by saying that while Ed and Dollie Lynch’s generosity over the years has benefited the city in innumerable ways, Vancouver is still changing.

“Our community is becoming more diverse and we’ve heard from different perspectives this evening that present a different viewpoint on the name and word ‘lynch,’” he said. “There may be an opportunity for an alignment of those perspectives through a community conversation.”