Rhodes College graduate and Truman Scholar, Brooks Lamb will sign copies of his new book, Overton Park: A People’s History, January 6 at Novel Bookstore. The book is a collection of stories and photographs with detailed accounts of one of the city’s most beloved landmarks.
Brooks Lamb has a devout love for Overton Park. It’s a love that’s grown immensely since he began volunteering there five years ago to help combat his homesickness as a new Rhodes College student. Lamb grew up on a farm just outside of Chapel Hill, Tennessee. After moving to the Bluff City, he began looking for opportunities to nurture his homesickness with service. Overton Park became his saving grace; but he never guessed that the stories he’d hear from the people around him, would inspire him to write his first book, Overton Park: A People’s History.
The book, published by the University of Tennessee Press, is a collection of historic photos and interviews with a score of Memphians-from civil rights activist Johnnie Turner to U.S. Congressman Steve Cohen, along with a host of artists and employees of the park.
We spoke with Lamb about the inspiration behind the book and some of the most surprising things he learned about the city’s 342-acre public park.
Choose901: Why did you decide to write this book?
BL: When I was a sophomore, I began volunteering with Overton Park and working alongside other volunteers who had spent a lot of time at the park. I was hearing all of these amazing stories about the park that were more intimate than I’d ever heard. I knew that I had to share these stories.
Choose901: You wrote the book while you were a student at Rhodes College. It was a time when you had to juggle school work and other activities, along with writing a very detailed book. What kept you motivated during the process?
BL: It was difficult. A few things that kept me going were the power of the stories that were shared with me. For someone to tell me about going to a park that was not welcoming to all races but to still feel connected to it and work there years later, was inspiring. Another one of the most defining stories, if not the most defining one, is that of the park’s history with the threat of Interstate 40 being constructed to run right through the park. There were several people involved to make sure that it didn’t happen, in order to preserve the space.
Choose901: You interviewed a variety of people ranging from civil rights activists to artists, what was your process in choosing who to speak to for this book?
BL: At the conclusion of each interview, I’d ask for recommendations. I asked each person if there was anyone else that they thought I should talk to who had a strong connection to the park. That’s how I was able to connect with other people.
Choose901: With all of the information you collected, what were some things you learned that surprised you the most about the park’s history?
BL: I wasn’t expecting to see so much history unfold in such a small space. Overton Park’s history is reminiscent of the city’s history, and even the nation’s history. The Great Depression touched the park through the construction of the Overton Park Shell, now the Levitt Shell. We saw a new era of popular culture hit when Elvis played his first paid concert at The Shell. We saw racial integration happen in the park. We saw the environmental movement in the park and the interstate case. We saw all of these amazing things unfold, and they all happened within this 342-acre space.
Choose901: When people read this book, what do you hope they take away from it?
BL: I hope this book helps people understand the profound importance of Overton Park and how it’s been such a significant part of Memphis’ history, as well as the nation’s history. I also help it inspires a new generation of stewards to want to care for the park.
The last thing I hope it does is more implicit. I hope the book shows power of imagination and affection when it comes to stewarding a place. I’m speaking of a tradition of some environmental philosophers who see imagination as this active ability to shut our eyes and see ourselves in a place. I think imagination of that sort for a place like Overton Park leads to a sense of affection that would make us want to do more for the park.
There are people of different eras and backgrounds, but who all have one thing in common. They spent time in the park, grew to love it and did what they had to do to take care of it. I hope it inspires a new generation to do the same.