When Phil Sinclair walks through David Carnes Park in the Whitehaven neighborhood in Memphis, memories come rushing back. He looks at a huge pecan tree and recalls days of harvesting the sweet nuts, cracking and eating some while setting aside batches to sell. He remembers fruit arches bursting with strawberries; trees heavy with peaches, pears and black walnuts; rows of corn and peas; and an area where hogs were raised for food.
Residents have been coming to this spot to enjoy the tree-lined walking trail or to watch their children play on the playground for years.
But for Sinclair, this place is far more personal: David Carnes was his grandfather, and the park that bears his name was once his home.
“My mother was born and raised on this property. I spent the first 6 years of my life here,” Sinclair says. “Everything we needed to eat was grown right here. I guess you could say I had a healthy lifestyle just because of that!”
Sinclair is looking forward to others making their own memories on this piece of land that means so much to him. Though he no longer lives nearby, Sinclair is ecstatic about the plans to revamp the park as the first BlueCross Healthy Place, with a $5.4 million investment from the BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee Health Foundation.
He and other longtime Whitehaven residents see the park’s revitalization as a way to feed the spirit of the neighborhood, but also as an opportunity to remind people of the community’s significance in African-American history.
A neighborhood’s roots
Years before the Civil War began, Colonel Francis White moved his family from Mississippi to a farm outside of Memphis. Shortly afterward, he was instrumental in establishing the Mississippi-Tennessee Railroad line, which opened the area to the cotton trade. For a while, the area was known as White’s Station.
The railroad helped the area to grow, with more well-to-do families settling there to farm. The history of the Whitehaven area reflects the history of the pre-Civil War South, with plantation owners relying on hundreds of slaves to work their farms and run their households.
In 1860, there were 653 white people living in Whitehaven, one free black man and 1,671 slaves.
“Black people have always been part of Whitehaven,” says University of Memphis historian Dr. Earnestine L. Jenkins.
“The area was predominantly rural up until the 1920s. The original plantation owners here were a relatively small group of people, but they were self-sufficient, growing and making most of what they needed from slave labor.”
“After slavery ended, some African-Americans stayed as the area was developed, thriving despite the restrictions they faced before the Civil Rights Movement took hold. Whitehaven began to be developed as a subdivision about 1908 around the street that is now Whitehaven Lane.”
Who is David Carnes?
David Carnes operated a blacksmith shop owned by county commissioner E.W. Hale, which was located on the site that is now the Southland Mall. He purchased land from Dr. Menasco, one of the early developers, in 1918 and was one of the first African-Americans in the area to purchase property in the neighborhood.
Carnes built a brick house on the site, where he and his wife, Lettie Dixon Carnes, raised their family. Other African-American families settled in the area around the same time and, over the years, built their businesses and made significant contributions to the neighborhood. In addition to his work at Hale’s blacksmith shop, Carnes had his own blacksmithing business and taught the trade at Geeter High School, one of two high schools that African-Americans in Whitehaven could attend.
Racial division was in full force at the time that Carnes and other black families were building their lives and businesses in Whitehaven. In 1939, neighborhood guidelines were drawn up for the subdivision that barred black people from living on Whitehaven Lane between the railroad tracks and Highway 51 unless they worked for one of the white families there.
Though they lived under the burdens of segregation, Whitehaven’s residents found ways to thrive and built their own community.
Over the years the black families who formed the neighborhood around Whitehaven Lane developed strong bonds, looking out for each other and each other’s children.
So, it was a time of mourning among neighbors when Carnes was hit by a car near his home and killed in 1953.
“David Carnes was one of the founding members of this community,” says Dr. Jenkins, who grew up on Whitehaven Lane. “This was a black man who was a pioneer for the black families who helped make Whitehaven and who have stayed here for decades.”
Turning points and turmoil
The neighborhood changed over the next few decades as the Civil Rights Movement strengthened and segregation began to break down.
“In 1968, after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, there was an effort to speed up integration in Memphis,” recalls Dr. Jenkins. “I was in sixth grade when my sister and I integrated Whitehaven Elementary School.”
The 1970s were a time of upheaval when many white families and white-owned businesses moved out to the Memphis suburbs rather than integrate. Whitehaven became a majority black neighborhood, with members from three of the original seven first black families still living on Whitehaven Lane. The neighborhood was a good place to live, and to this day has the highest per capita income of African-Americans in Tennessee and the most African-American college graduates.
In 1994, Carnes’ daughter, Jean Carnes Sinclair, sold her father’s original property to the city of Memphis to turn it into a local park. When a proposal to name it for a school principal came up, she lobbied to name it for her David Carnes instead, to honor the area’s roots.
Economic downturn and renewal
Like so many other parts of the country, Whitehaven suffered from the recession in the early 2000s, with many people losing jobs and homes. Businesses shut down or moved away. The park suffered too, with slower maintenance schedules that led to deteriorating equipment.
Residents knew it was still a beautiful park with lots of shade trees, and they made it a habit to walk there. Because they wanted to see it used more, they appealed to the city to make upgrades, like better lighting, more parking and upgrades to the walking track.
“We are a community that stays engaged with one another, and we need to make changes,” says Councilwoman Patrice Robinson, who has lived in the area for 40 years. “The park can be an important part in bringing people here together.”
Sinclair shares that hope for the renewed David Carnes Park.
“My grandfather had a lot of beautiful plants, and I remember when I was growing up, the grounds were loaded with pretty flowers,” Sinclair says.
“I would really like to have the park be a friendly, easy-paced place where people can gather.”