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Tom Lee memorial could be removed from park

Tom Lee memorial could be removed from park
Published: Jun. 26, 2018 at 1:20 AM CDT|Updated: Jun. 26, 2018 at 6:04 AM CDT
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MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - More than a year after a storm damaged the Tom Lee Memorial in downtown Memphis, the obelisk that came crashing down still hasn't been replaced.

Now, WMC Action News 5 has learned it may never be.

Publicly, city leaders say an insurance issue is the reason the obelisk hasn't been fixed.  Privately, there is talk of removing the entire statue because of the top line on the base of it which describes hero Tom Lee as "a very worthy negro."

"Yeah, I could see why some people find that kind of offensive," said lifelong Memphian Gregory Perry.  "I think it's somewhat offensive."

Perry, who is African-American, doesn't like the wording on the statue, but he loves the legend of Tom Lee.  In 1925, Lee, a black man, took his tiny boat out into the Mississippi River to save 32 white people after their ship capsized.

"Supposedly," said Perry, "he couldn't swim, but he risked his life, making numerous trips to go out and save people. I think it's a great deed and he should be honored."

The city erected the stone memorial in 1954 to do just that.  The obelisk has been knocked off at least twice by storms.

The last time was last year during the Memphis in Mayhem storm that left more than half the city without power.

There's now talk of removing the statue instead of repairing it.

"I don't think it's offensive," said Texas tourist Teresa Spille. "That's the way people talked back then.  It wasn't meant to be offensive."

Spille, who is white, had never heard of Tom Lee until her visit Monday to Tom Lee Park. She was thoroughly impressed with Lee and with pictures of the memorial, showing it with the obelisk intact.

"I think his story is wonderful," said Spille, "and you should have a monument to him. And it should be fixed."

George Abbott, spokesperson for the Memphis River Parks Partnership, the group that manages Memphis' parks, said The Partnership is waiting on the city's insurance claim to settle so they can get money to replace the obelisk.

When asked if the statue will be part of the planned $45 million renovation of Tom Lee Park, Abbott released a statement which read, "We are going to ensure we honor and remember Tom Lee and his historic actions appropriately."

Charles Thompson grew up in Memphis.  He is African-American and said he has no issues with his 8-year-old son, Courtney, looking at the memorial and seeing the word "negro" on there.

"I don't have any problem with it," Thompson said, "I would tell him this is the language they used back then.  This how they used to describe African Americans.  I don't see anything wrong with us having our history still available for us to read it."

There is a second, more modern bronze statue honoring Tom Lee at the park by Wyoming artist David Alan Clark. It was dedicated in 2006.  It may be the lone one if the memorial is removed.

"I would love to see it come back," said Thompson about the obelisk.  "That's what I grew up looking at.  Why would it not come back?

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