Gone with the Wind Andrew Jackson, racism and the southern magnolia tree

Gone with the Wind Andrew Jackson, racism and the southern magnolia tree

A series of new trees were planted in Franklin Park last month, among them are three southern magnolia trees. The city may have inadvertantly added three oppressive symbols to the park as this particular species has also been used as a symbol of the Confederacy. The brand new flag of Mississippi approved Monday replaced the stars and bars symbol with a magnolia blossom. While the planting of trees is certainly to be encouraged, the use of this particular species at this time seems tone deaf and begs the question, are they meant to represent hate or ignorance? For more on the appropriation of the southern magnolia through history,

As we talk about racism in our parks and public spaces, we must also talk about the plants and trees selected to grow in them. Specifically, we need to talk about the southern magnolia tree.

The southern magnolia tree produces a flower with a beautiful large bloom that is well recognized for its size and beauty. It is also, however, the longtime symbol of the southern confederacy.

Recently, Alameda Recreation and Parks Department (ARPD) planted five new trees in Franklin Park along Morton Street; three are southern magnolias. These young trees occupy a space barely large enough to occupy one fully grown magnolia tree. For scale, one can look at
the extremely large southern magnolia in the park formerly known as Jackson Park.

It is not clear why so many of these trees would suddenly start cropping up in our parks. Though one thing is clear: it is time for ARPD to evaluate its plant inventory list and consider removing this racist relic from our parks as part of removing Jackson’s racist history.
Symbolic of the American South, the magnolia grandiflora is the state tree of Mississippi, and the state flower of Mississippi and Louisiana. The flower was also used as an emblem or “mascot” of the Confederate army in the U.S. civil war. President Andrew Jackson even transplanted a southern magnolia from his plantation home in Nashville, Tenn., to the White House grounds in 1828.

When Mississippi joined the Confederacy in 1861, a committee came up with a new flag for Mississippi, the “magnolia flag” with a magnolia tree on a white background. And again in 2019, when Mississippi adopted its new flag, it replaced the confederate or rebel flag within its state flag with a magnolia flower.

Interestingly, when the park formerly known as Jackson Park was first renamed for President Andrew Jackson in 1909, at a time when people were reading the novels of Thomas Dixon Jr.: The Leopard’s Spots (1902), The Clansman (1905), and The Traitor (1907). Dixon — a classmate and friend of then-President Woodrow Wilson — helped bring the Reconstruction-era Ku Klux Klan back into public consciousness. Offering a romanticized portrait of the Ku Klux Klan, the novels reflected Dixon’s view that racial equality would result in the destruction of civilized society.

In 1915, D.W. Griffith’s controversial epic film The Birth of a Nation about the Civil War and Reconstruction, depicting the Ku Klux Klan as valiant saviors of a post-war South was released as “adapted from the book The Clansman by Thomas Dixon Jr.”

Alameda was recently ranked eighth on the List of the Most Racist Cities in the Golden State, largely due to its number of klaverns (chapters) and Ku Klux Klan officers per capita at the height of peak hate in 1940. The top seven cities were all mountain foothills or Central Valley cities.

And surprisingly, in 2021, American Heritage Trees website sells the southern magnolia promoting Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate Army during the American Civil War.

Last year, in an attempt to undo the racist harm Jackson symbolizes, the City Council voted to rename the park formerly known as Jackson Park. In alignment with renaming the park, ARPD might consider replacing the three newly planted southern magnolias in Franklin Park and developing its own anti-racist, tree-and-plant selection list more suitable for our city’s parks, grounds and open spaces.

If we are going to make our city and public spaces and properties antiracist and welcoming to everyone, then we must include our trees and plants, too.

Amos White is an Alameda resident and founder of 100K Trees for Humanity, a local tree planting initiative.