Dressed in the uniform of an 1898 U.S. Army cavalry soldier, Richard Wilder came to today’s City Commission meeting with a simple request: Promote Lakeland tourism and pride by naming a park between Lake Wire and Florida Avenue after the Buffalo Soldiers who camped along the lake 121 years ago.

A historical marker near the sidewalk on the north shore of Lake Wire commemorates the African-American calvary regiment that spent three weeks there in 1898 before shipping out for Cuba and the Spanish-American War. And the marker has been recognized as part of the Florida Black Heritage Trail, said Wilder, who heads a group of re-enactors and educators called Buffalo Solders Florida.

Buffalo Soldiers historical marker

But there’s a problem. The park — mostly it’s a grass field just south of Lawton Chiles Middle Academy — already has a name. It was dedicated as Freedom Park in 2013 after two Lakeland residents spent time and money starting seven years earlier to create a plan for the park and secure the name.

Freedom Park

The ambitious plan for Freedom Park was never carried out — parks officials say environmental mitigation on the property leaves a thin layer of topsoil that is hard to build on or even plant sizable trees. The 2.46-acre property was given to the city by the National Park Service in 2003, and the city has spent $200,000 on it, mostly for the environmental reclamation. Nowadays it is used mainly by the nearby magnet school for recreation and ceremonies, Parks Director Bob Donahay said.

The 2006 conceptual plan for Freedom Park

The chief proponents of Freedom Park — commercial real estate broker Maria Mahoney and lawyer Karl Pansler — proudly protect the name as an expression of the patriotism that propelled them to push for the park.

So attached to the name Freedom Park are they that Polk Veterans Council Chairman Gary Clark semi-jokingly reminded them after the meeting that they kept it from being used at what is now known as Veterans Park.

After the meeting, Wilder said he could tell he got commissioners’ attention when he mentioned that the marker is part of the Florida Legislature-sanctioned Black Heritage Trail. But it was also clear that there was not a lot of appetite among commissioners for a complete name change.

So as he spoke with commissioners, Wilder hinted at a compromise: “We’re asking for a simple name change AND /OR (he emphasized) a merger of names.”

Afterwards, Wilder sat outside the commission meeting room having a quiet talk with Mahoney and Pansler. The trio agreed to meet on Thursday to begin working out a solution all are comfortable with, Wilder said.

He said the three-way meeting was amicable and the other two raised a possibility he wasn’t even going to mention today: Moving the Buffalo Soldier historic marker to the Florida Avenue side of the park so that it gets greater exposure to the busy thoroughfare.

The historic marker, nearly 20 years old, is showing signs of wear and is about to be either refurbished or re-created, City Manager Tony Delgado said.

Wilder said he believes that if Lake Wire is named a Florida Heritage Site because of the Buffalo Soldiers that the state will assume responsibility for maintaining the marker.

“I don’t feel it was a defeat today by any means. I feel it has been an accomplishment,” he said.

Wilder’s organization is planning to celebrate Buffalo Soldiers Day — July 28 — with festivities at the park including a 1 p.m. speech by a brigadier general.

Fox 13 News coverage:

LkldNow 2015 video story about a Buffalo Soldiers re-enactment:

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Barry Friedman founded Lkldnow.com in 2015 as the culmination of a career in print and digital journalism. Since 1982, he has used the tools of reporting, editing and content curation to help people in Lakeland understand their community better.

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