Charmeal Alexander poses with her family, all descendants of Tom Lee, at the Tom Lee Day Celebration in 2021. (Photo: Memphis River Parks Partnership.)

by Candace A. Gray —

Memphis leaders are revamping Tom Lee Park to not only better serve the Memphis community, but to help connect the rest of Downtown to Memphis’ new front door.

Parks have become increasingly important, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, providing people with safe, outdoor spaces for recreation, mental solace and beauty outside the confines of their isolated homes. 

Like Memphis, cities such as Chattanooga, Chicago and San Antonio are redesigning their downtown parks and riverfronts to create more appealing spaces that bring communities together. 

Carol Coletta, president and CEO of Memphis River Parks Partnership, the entity that manages 250 acres of Memphis’ riverfront and its parks, said, “Cities all over the world are reclaiming their waterfronts for people and reconnecting them to the city. 

“Memphis is blessed to be on North America’s most iconic river at its widest and wildest point. We have the advantage of learning from what others have done to make the best riverfront for the people of Memphis.” 

Tom Lee (Photo courtesy of Memphis River Parks Partnership.)

The crowned jewel of Memphis’ riverfront transformation is Tom Lee Park, named for an African-American river worker who, on May 8, 1925, courageously rescued 32 people from drowning in the Mississippi River.

He pulled each passenger into his small skiff boat, called the Zev, and took them back to shore as the much larger vessel, the M.E. Norman, began to capsize. 

Tom Lee, a non-swimmer, said of his heroic and selfless acts, “I guess I didn’t do any more than anyone else would have in my place.” 

This 2006 creation by David Alan Clark depicts the heroics of Tom Lee. (Photo:
Memphis River Parks Partnership.)

Tyree Daniels, Memphis River Parks Partnership board chair (the second African-American chair in the organization’s history), said Tom Lee’s story is uniquely Memphis. 

“Many of our citizens perform acts of kindness, courage and self-determination daily in their neighborhoods,” said Daniels. “Tom Lee’s life and legacy serve as a testament to all Memphians of how bravery and a ‘can-do’ attitude can have a lasting impact.”

Daniels is no stranger to that attitude, leading the successful fundraising efforts for the $61million public/private partnership park renovation, with only $6 million left to raise.

Charmeal Alexander, Tom Lee’s great, great niece, fondly recalls hearing stories about her uncle from her father and other elders. She and her family were instrumental in ensuring Tom Lee received the recognition he deserved. 

“After my uncle died in 1952, they renamed Astor Park at the foot of Beale Street after him and referred to him as a ‘Very Worthy Negro’ on his memorial, which was not good enough for us,” said Alexander. 

“So, in the 90s after my father passed, my sister Carlita Neely and I called city officials, and anyone who would listen, to advocate for a proper memorial.”

Some of those calls were ignored.

Perhaps a higher power was at play years later when Hurricane Elvis in 2003 damaged the stone obelisk honoring Lee, leading to the 2006 creation of a proper memorial in the sculpture by David Alan Clark now in the park.

“Tom Lee’s legacy and spirit will live on in the new park, which is really important to our family now more than ever before,” Alexander said.

Charmeal Alexander and daughter Aria with Memphis River Parks Partnership staff and board, and Rep. Steve Cohen. Pictured (l-r): George Abbott, Charmeal Alexander (and daughter Aria), Calvin Anderson, Carol Coletta, Rep. Steve Cohen, Greg Duckett and Tyree Daniels. (Photo: Memphis River Parks Partnership.)

The park comprised 30 acres of mostly flat, sprawling lawns, is being transformed into a more dynamic space with varying typography and for uses year-round by families, visitors, schools and businesses.

“The park will provide so many new reasons to visit our riverfront,” said Coletta. 

She listed park features, including misting fountains, an all-access/all-ages playground, food and beverage opportunities, a new river deck to enjoy Memphis sunsets, a 20,000 square feet civic canopy conducive for games, dancing and gatherings, and running loops and walking paths through new native landscape.

There also will be new overlooks of the river and the park, and more than 1,000 new trees.

Source: Studio Gang & SCAPE

“One of the things I’m most excited about is Theaster Gates’ ‘anti-monument’ art experience that will build off of my uncle’s current memorial sculpture to drive community engagement,” Alexander said. “I can’t wait to see the impact his work has our on community.”

Gates’ installation will feature 33 functional bronze sculptures (representing Lee and the 32 survivors) intended to provoke complex questions and dialogue about the future of Memphis and how we can all work to advance racial reconciliation.

Gates is among the MWBE (Minority, Women-owned Business Enterprise) entrepreneurs enlisted to help in the park’s redesign. Women-led architecture/urban design and landscape architecture firms Studio Gang and SCAPE also part of the redesign team. 

“We are especially pleased to set a new bar for MWBE participation in major capital projects in Memphis with 44.88 percent participation,” said Coletta.

“We actually exceeded that on the Fourth Bluff Park renovation, with 80 percent MWBE spend, but it was a smaller project. This one says, ‘We can do this, Memphis!’ Let’s get more equitable participation in these projects; participation that looks more like Memphis,” she said.

Regarding equity, according to Coletta, the site of the new Tom Lee Park sits on a unique piece of real estate.

“It’s adjacent to Downtown and six blocks from Tennessee’s poorest Zip code, allowing it to leverage new value that benefits all of Memphis and serve Memphians for whom this needs to be their Disneyland. I love it when a single investment can do both. That’s the real story of why this location makes so much sense,” said Coletta.

Daniels, Memphis River Parks Partnership board chair, added, “For many of the individuals who look like me, Tom Lee Park might be the only source of outdoor recreation and beauty they will be able to experience. We are building a transcendent park experience.”

(To learn more, visit TomLeePark.org.)