By Clint Confehr
COLUMBIA, TN — Several Maury County residents want to rename Carmack Boulevard “because of Edward Carmack’s racist history.” Knowing the late U.S. senator’s record, the mayor offered alternatives.
“Instead of a change,” Columbia Mayor Chaz Molder asks, “why not acquire property for a civil right’s history museum?” The 1.7-mile part of U.S. Route 31 might be declared Cordie Cheek Memorial Highway the way East 7th Street is also Rosa Parks Memorial Parkway, Molder said.
Perry-Winn Hunt of Mt. Pleasant is related to Cheek who was lynched in 1933. In 2017, Hunt opposed changing Negro Creek Road’s name. “Some Black boys were drowned there,” Hunt said. It’s Johnson Creek Road now. “They wiped out the history of why they named it,” Hunt said.
Renaming Carmack Boulevard was first advocated by Columbia residents Rachael Ledbetter and Daneshia Walker who started a “Rename Carmack Boulevard” Facebook page. Cheek should be honored instead of glorifying Carmack, “a ruthless advocate for segregation, proponent of lynching … [who] … led vicious attacks on Ida B. Wells,” chasing her out of Memphis.
Cheek, 17, was falsely accused of rape in Maury County. Without evidence, he wasn’t indicted. Released, he fled to relatives near Fisk University. A Maury County magistrate and two other men abducted Cheek near Fisk’s gates. They took him to a Maury lynch mob which mutilated and killed him.
Renaming advocates are open to other names. Ledbetter realized Carmack’s history when his statue was forced down at the state Capitol. She told Walker.
“Carmack Boulevard runs through a predominately Black part of town,” Walker said. “It’s sort of a slap in the face to have a street named after a man who was for segregation and lynching.
“We have all fought the same battles in the African-American community,” Walker said. “Now is the time for change. I feel like this is a new Civil Rights movement” with protests against George Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police May 25.
Molder says he’s “trying to acquire property in downtown Columbia to have a cultural events center, or museum dedicated to the Civil Rights history in Columbia.” As a defense attorney, “Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall came [here] to defend people arrested during the 1946 riot.” Columbia is in a position be a “trailblazer in this conversation of the day.”
Jo Ann McClellan, president of the African American Heritage Society of Maury County, said “There are businesses and at least one African-American church with Carmack Boulevard as part of their legal name. Will the group expect [them] to change their name; lose their history? … My guess is that most of the people in Maury County have never heard of … Carmack.”
Accountant Charles Jones has lived here 18 years. He didn’t know about Carmack and says, U.S. Highway 31 is also named Nashville Highway, Garden Parkway and Pulaski Highway.
Molder said renaming roads is “a slippery slope.” There’s Confederate Drive, Forrest Drive named for Nathan Bedford Forrest, and Polk Street. James K. Polk enslaved people. “Where do you stop?” The city manager is researching the subject. They didn’t know if Columbia can change state and federal road names.
“Our history is not pretty with regard to race relations,” he said. “Now, we’ve got leadership willing to tackle this head-on. Think of the irony of someone having to come down Carmack Boulevard to get to the museum that talks about the history of Carmack and the horrific things he did or stood for.
“My hope is that over the next couple of months we can procure the site I have in mind.”