The Case over Baconsfield Park
By Stephanie Barron, Jessica Carrier, Chad Moore, William Sanders, and Andrew Smith
In 1894, Augustus Octavius Bacon was elected to the United States Senate by the General Assembly of Georgia. Bacon, a Confederate veteran, moved to Macon in 1866 to practice law. He owned a large plantation on the northeastern side of the Ocmulgee River, and he donated 100 acres of that land to help found the Masonic Orphanage and another parcel became the Alexander III Elementary School. When Senator Bacon died in 1914, he bequeathed the remaining 75 acres to the city of Macon for “the use, benefit, and enjoyment of the white women and children of the city of Macon to be by them forever used and enjoyed as a park and pleasure ground.” As stated in Bacon's will, the park area was formed and would be known as “Baconsfield,” with the City of Macon named as a trustee of the park, and placed on a Board of Managers who sought to oversee the trust of the park (Jones).
Senator Bacon, like most nineteenth-century white southerners, was a segregationist. He agreed with the 'separate but equal' point of view. Taken from Senator Bacon's will: “I am not influenced by any unkindness of feeling or want of consideration for the Negroes, or any colored people, but I am of the opinion that in their social relations, the two races should be separate and that they should not have pleasure or recreation grounds to be used or enjoyed together and in common” (Jones).
Baconsfield Park opened in1920, and it was large, lush, beautiful landscape used for recreation. The park included 75 acres of land between the northeast side of the Ocmulgee River and North Avenue. The park contained various athletic facilities including basketball, baseball, football, volleyball, and tennis courts. The baseball diamonds were also used by the Little League teams of the area. There were playgrounds with swing sets, seesaws, monkey-bars, merry-go-rounds, and slides that were used by the school and orphanage that Bacon founded on the land. The park also had numerous flowers and trees, including roses, tulips, daffodils, magnolias, and many foreign varieties of plant life. There was a bamboo thicket, a wading pool, and a water fountain. Baconsfield Park was also home to a Women’s Clubhouse which served as the meeting place for several social groups in the area. It was a two-story, light gray brick building located at the corner of North Avenue and Nottingham Dr, off what is today known as Gray Highway. The park was enjoyed by the white community in the Macon area for several decades, as Bacon had intended in his will, but as talk of racial integration grew, the park’s whites-only policy became controversial (Bertrand).
The Baconsfield dispute, which would eventually be argued before the U. S. Supreme Court, was not the first case between property rights and enforcement of civil rights legislation. The Supreme Court’s decision in Plessy v Ferguson established the constitutionality of segregation in 1896, and most facilities, institutions, and neighborhoods in the South were segregated. Macon was no different from the rest of the South.
The precedent for the Baconsfield case was established in the case of Shelley v. Kraemer. On October 9th, 1945, Louis and Fern Kraemer brought a suit against J.D. and Ethel Shelley in a dispute over property that was deemed white-only in a private homeowner's agreement. The Kraemer’s and some of their neighbors had enacted a voluntary restrictive covenant over their own land which stated that the land would not be sold to anyone of black or Asian descent. However, only two out of the nine households within the area had signed the covenant, and some of the land had been owned by blacks previously. The Shelley’s suit requested that the property in question, being upheld by the restrictive covenant, be placed back into the hands of the original owners. The Circuit Courts of Missouri ruled in favor of Shelley, while an appeal to the State Supreme Court led to a decisive reversal of the decision.
Much of the popularity and success of the case seems to have been dependent on the campaigning done on behalf of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The campaign drew much attention from the legal realm as well as an endorsing statement from the U.S. Justice Department, while the opposition only managed to procure one article in a circulated law review.
The Supreme Court, upon hearing the case, made a decision that would drastically part restrictive covenants from legal relevance. The idea behind the decision was that, while such covenants were not in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment themselves, they did not allow for state action to be involved in their execution. The decision ruled in favor of the Shelley’s, which made clear the Supreme Court’s attitude on state action in the wake of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Senator Bacon bequeathed the park to the City of Macon, but it was to be run by a Board of Trustees, which the City of Macon was a part of. The park was segregated until 1963, when the park started to allow blacks into Baconsfield (Bertrand 152). Some members of the board, including Charles E. Newton, did not like the idea of an integrated park. They wanted to return the park to its original purpose, as set forth in Senator Bacon’s will. On May 4, 1963, these members brought their case to the Bibb Superior Court and appealed to remove the City of Macon as a trustee of the park. If they could remove the City from the board, they planned to appoint new trustees, such as Guyton G. Abney, in order to re-segregate of the park. On May 20, the City of Macon submitted an answer to a petition that was filed by Attorney Buckner F. Melton. The answer stated that the City of Macon “cannot legally enforce the racial segregation of [Baconsfield]” (Gorham). It also asked that the court decide what the obligations of the trust fell to the City of Macon, with regards to Senator Bacon’s will. Reverend E. S. Newton and other African Americans opposed the desires of the board to return the park to use by whites only. These people “filed an intervention in the cause and asserted that the racial restriction violated the public policy of the United States and the laws of the State of Georgia” (Bertrand 153). They claimed that under the Fourteenth Amendment, the Board of Trustees could not operate the park publicly in a way that was racially discriminative. Following this controversy with Newton and other African Americans about Baconsfield, on March 4, 1964 the City of Macon decided to resign from the Board of Trustees for the park. The next day, the African Americans who “yesterday filed a legal brief with Bibb Superior Court Judge Oscar L. Long, contesting the right of the city of Macon to be dismissed as trustee of the facility” (Baconsfield). They claimed that the Equal Protection Clause prohibited the City from resigning (Bertrand 154). However on May 4, the court accepted the city’s resignation from the Board of Trustees. After this decision, the Negroes appealed their case to the Supreme Court of Georgia. They claimed that when Macon resigned as a trustee they violated the terms of the trust, as stipulated by Bacon’s will.
This court case, Evans v Newton, would have tremendous impact upon the city of Macon, especially the grassroots Civil Rights movement. The U. S. Supreme Court ruled in 1966 that the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment applied to the park because it was a public space maintained with public funds.
Three years later, the case would return to the Supreme Court. The Supreme case of Evans v Abney was brought before the Supreme Court over a dispute over whether or not Negros should be allowed to enter Baconsfield Park in Macon, Georgia, not because the space was public but because Senator Bacon’s will specified that the park be used by whites only.
The NAACP lawyers, who supported Evans' side of the case, presented a case to the Court where they painted a picture of a property that would be like a wilderness that could be run without the investment of the city of Macon’s monetary and/or workforce. The lawyers cited different times in the city's history where either the city of Macon, or the United States government through the city itself, had improved upon the park as part of the trust agreement in Bacon's will. Not only did the city improve upon the park but they also paid Senator Bacon’s surviving daughter a total of $44,000 over a span of her life so that the city could have greater access to the park for the enjoyment of the public. Since the park was under the financial and physical support of the city of Macon, it also had to abide by the Fourteenth Amendment. Under the Fourteenth Amendment, any racial segregation of public functions was not allowed, which would violate one of the major limitations of the will.
The lawyers stated that there are two different options that the Court could take. One option would be that the trust should revert back to the heirs of the estate, like previous Courts have ruled, or the other option was that the Court could rule to use Georgia law that provides for the carrying out of a testament’s dominant purpose with some provisions to remove the limitation that prevents Negros in the park. If the Court were to choose to uphold the current rulings and return the trust to the heirs of the estate, then the Court would be setting a precedent that would be very dangerous, as well as detrimental to the public, the NAACP lawyers argued. Not only would the City of Macon lose the money and man hours that it has invested into the park, but it would also lose a beautiful park that had been used by the public for the past fifty years. The case might be somewhat different if the park had not been in service for so long, but taking away a park that had been enjoyed for so long, just for the fact that Negros must be allowed in, would bring shame upon Macon.
If the Court were to overturn the previous ruling, then they would not only be doing what was considered 'just', but also following the precedent set by predating cases. The lawyers argued that Senator Bacon never intended for the land to be anything but a park, as was made clear by the will. As this is a piece of property, they argued, it has no degradation with use, so that there will be no loss of enjoyment for the white people should Negros be allowed in. They outlined a few reasons why the park should be allowed to stay open with Negros using it, such as the fact that the City of Macon was a trustee of the park, so the park would be able to fall under city codes which could then overthrow the limitations in the will as being invalid. Another argument was that the trustees could use a Georgia law that allows for some varying of provisions within a will if the provisions are no longer able to be used.
In response to the case that was brought by the NAACP, the defense lawyers for Abney's case used the state precedent. They began their case with a defense of a previous Georgia Supreme Court ruling by arguing to the Supreme Court that the City of Macon did not own the park nor had any real claim to ownership of the park, so the park did not fall into city codes. The sum of $40,000 that was paid by the city was in response to bonds that been bought by Senator Bacon in the latter part of his life and were used to help gain early access to the property, while Bacon's surviving daughter was still alive.
The lawyers also showed that the money used for park renovation had come from the park itself. The park had money generating properties that helped to provide funds for the improvement and maintenance of the park. Part of the park had been ceded to an interstate highway, and the money that was given for the acquisition of that land had also been invested into the trust of the park. Once they had shown all of the different sources of income, the lawyers continued to show that the City of Macon had invested no more than fifty percent of the improvement costs for the park, so the argument that the city had sway over the park was invalid. One of the other major sources of contention concerned the pool and the clubhouse that were built on the property. The pool was said to be built in the money-making section of the trust land so that investment by the city had no sway into the ownership of the land. As for the club house, there was no record of the Board of Managers ever approving the creation of the club house by the federal government and thus was done illegally.
Abney's lawyers argued that the City of Macon never had control or ownership of the park because Senator Bacon expressly set up a Board of Managers to run the trust and, through it, the park. The will laid out that all things that happened to the park must be approved by the Board.
The last part of the defense’s strategy was to defend the notion that there were actually two separate intentions when Senator Bacon set up the trust. The lawyers for Evans argued that Senator Bacon wanted the property to be a park, and that the limitation set on it that Negros were not allowed in the park was a separate intention entirely, and shouldn't be compared. The defense argued that this interpretation was ungrounded. They said that it was a park that was meant to be for only white people and that fact was inseparable from that of the land being used as a park. With the idea that there wasn't a dual nature in the will, then it could be stated that the trust had defaulted when it could not serve its purpose and thus it must return to the heirs of the estate. This is the same conclusion that the previous Supreme Court ruling came to as well. The lawyers further said that because that was the case, it was really an issue of state-trust law instead of national anti-discrimination laws, and that the state law would take precedent within the state of Georgia. In their closing comments, the defense lawyers reminded the Court that because the property had not left Bacon’s ownership, that no person’s rights would be denied by being denied access to private property.
The Supreme Court ruled 5 votes in favor of Abney and 2 in favor of Evans. They upheld the previous rulings that the trust be given back to the heirs of the estate. This continued the precedent that anyone could be denied access to someone’s private property. That precedence would be used in other cases to support segregation. (Evans v Abney) [audio transcript]
With the return of the park to Bacon’s heirs, the possibility of the park turning into an industrial development became a real concern. By 1971, just one year after the close of Abney v Evans, the park had become unkempt and overgrown, and people began to worry about the future of the park. One woman in particular, Ginger Birdsey, did not want to lose the park for herself, her two sons, or the future generations of Maconites. Birdsey, Faye Popper, Miriam Glover and Libby Johnson arranged a meeting with two of the trustees that represented the heirs of Bacon, Guyton Abney and Sewell Elliot. When the ladies asked the trustees if they could somehow purchase the park in order to preserve it as a park, the men responded that they had an asking price of two million dollars. The ladies, along with their husbands, decided to form Save Old Baconsfield, Inc. in June 1971 (Richardson).
The organization, at its inception, wanted to show that public support for the preservation of the park still existed through extensive use of newspaper ads, articles, and petitions. They thought that if government officials understood that supporting the park would be positive for them politically, they would be more willing to support the movement. Encouragement and support came from all over the Middle Georgia area, not just from Macon. On August 4, 1971, fifty-five incorporators, some of whom were previously associated with the Baconsfield cases, were listed in a large ad in the Macon Telegraph. Ginger Birdsey mailed 2,500 petitions to local citizens and 4,200 signatures were returned. Organizations such as the Macon-Bibb County Beautification Commission, the Macon-Bibb County Recreation Commission, the Girl Scouts Council, the Forest Hill Garden Club, and the Macon Secretaries Club all supported the effort. A letter to the editor from a Mr. & Mrs. Spain Willingham expressed a common sentiment held among supporters: “[If] people get the kind of government that they deserve, [and] if we allow all our trees, grass and flowers to be replaced by concrete, steel and glass, we deserve the bad effect this will have on the environment, and on the souls and bodies of this and future generations” (Richardson 100). Other letters reminisced about the writers’ childhoods in the park. Others who wanted to keep the park beautiful wrote about what the park had meant to them when they were younger. Losing the park would mean that Macon was one step closer to becoming a large industrial city which the majority did not want (Richardson).
With the popular support obtained, Save Old Baconsfield Inc., particularly Ralph Birdsey, searched for ways they could finance the buying of the park. Initially, Birdsey found that the Nature Conservancy would be willing to provide funding if there was a “reasonable chance” that the city would repurchase the land (Richardson 101). Birdsey also found two ways that the federal government could finance the park. One was the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which would provide matching funds up to fifty percent, and the other was the Legacy of Arks program, which would provide matching funds up to seventy-five percent. The problem soon changed from having no venues to obtain money to having no one to ask for them. Federal grants had to be requested by the local government and Save Old Baconsfield had yet to win Macon's support. Although Mayor Ronnie Thompson had initially seemed to have a slightly positive view towards Save Old Baconsfield, he soon changed his mind after learning that Bacon’s heirs had no intentions of selling the property as a public park (Richardson).
Unknown to Birdsey and other members of Save Old Baconsfield, a sales contract was created in November of 1971 between J. Marvin Elliot, E. Raymond Smith and attorney Charles F. Adams. Even when word leaked of this contract on December 17th in the Macon Telegraph, Save Old Baconsfield did not quit and still attempted to obtain federal grants to finance the park. On January 11, 1972, Birdsey and others went to the Mayor and Macon City Council to ask that a special study committee be formed to find all possible means that the park could be reacquired by the city. Mayor Thompson said that he would personally appoint the committee, but by January 25th, the council had still not been made. Since a sales contract already existed between the owners of the property and the businessmen, and the owners refused to sell the land as a park, the city was advised to “abandon all interest in the park” by the City Attorney, Lawton Miller (Richardson 105). During the January 25th meeting, the representatives of the heirs reiterated that they would not sell the property as a park and that the only way the city would obtain the park was through condemnation, which they planned to fight. Condemnation is a legal method that could be used by the government to take private property and use it for a public service. At this point it appeared that there was no hope for the Save Old Baconsfield movement to continue (Richardson).
However, a separate group of Bacon’s heirs said that they were willing to sell the land as a park, if it could stay segregated. They intended to honor Senator Bacon’s will, and they requested $200,000 in legal fees to have the park returned to them. After hearing this, the committee that Birdsey requested of the city council was formed to investigate whether the park could be kept by the city. After learning that the Nature Conservancy would not provide funding for the preservation of the park, Birdsey turned to James Nabritt of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, who responded that he would not “lift a finger” to help the cause after Evans v Abney (Richardson 106). The movement came to a halt on March 21, 1972, when City Council voted 12-2 to abandon the Baconsfield Park preservation effort because they would have to condemn it and enter into litigation, which they had decided not to pursue when they resigned as trustees (Richardson).
Although Save Old Baconsfield appealed to Planning and Zoning, the park was lost forever. Despite Bacon’s segregationist views, there are a few clues that hint that he would not have wanted the eventual outcome. His lack of a reverting clause in his will shows that he did not want the property to revert back to his heirs, which is exactly what happened. His diaries show that although he opposed Reconstruction policies, he did not harbor any hatred towards the North. As far as his view on blacks, “he thought Negroes should be protected, and he condemned those who would exploit them; but he did not favor giving the Negro full political rights” (Richardson). Bacon’s primary purposes in creating the park were to create a beautiful open space and to keep his family name since his two sons died. As a man with deep connections to his family, it is doubtful that Bacon would rather have lost the park entirely than have it be desegregated. However, since Bacon is not alive to answer these questions, they will continue to be debated. No matter Bacon’s wishes, Baconsfield Park was lost to Maconites forever, and the area is now a strip mall and abandoned car lot. It was a sacrifice to Jim Crow.
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