FARGO — This city’s oldest park has become a symbolic home of sorts for a group committed to seeking justice and equality for people of color.

Wess Philome of OneFargo said while he’s always been drawn to Island Park downtown, other group founders actually chose it as the place to stage their events.

They began a peaceful march there on May 30 to protest the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. It later evolved into a night of violence and vandalism, which organizers said was the work of bad actors who weren’t part of the earlier protest.

A OneFargo celebration, which included speeches by city leaders, was held in the park June 5, and a harder-edged Juneteenth event, commemorating the end of slavery, began and ended in the park on June 19.

“The history that we've been able to build in just two weeks here is absolutely incredible,” Philome said.

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The park, established in the late 1800s on former railroad land, has evolved over the years — a metaphor, perhaps, for the change the group is seeking.

Here’s a look at the long history of Island Park, or as Philome likes to call it, “Justice Island.”

OneFargo organizer Wess Philome talks about Island Park and its statue of Henrik Wergeland, a legendary poet and writer known as "the Abraham Lincoln of Norway." Chris Flynn / The Forum
OneFargo organizer Wess Philome talks about Island Park and its statue of Henrik Wergeland, a legendary poet and writer known as "the Abraham Lincoln of Norway." Chris Flynn / The Forum

Presidents and pools

When the Fargo Park District was established in 1910, Island Park was its only park, and the city had a population of just 14,000.

John Hallberg, an archives associate at North Dakota State University Archives, said when the park got its name, the Red River ran through it, a different path than it takes now.

John Hallberg, an archives associate at NDSU Archives, talks about the history of Island Park. Chris Flynn / The Forum
John Hallberg, an archives associate at NDSU Archives, talks about the history of Island Park. Chris Flynn / The Forum

There was an oxbow or bend in the river, and when the water rose, it left a sort of “island” in the park, he said.

In the archives, there are many photos of high water around the park from before there was any sort of flood protection.

There’s a photo of President Theodore Roosevelt giving a Labor Day speech in 1910, following dedication of the cornerstone at the former Fargo College library south of the park.

The archives document two buildings built in Island Park via the Works Progress Administration, a program developed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1935 to get people back to work after the Great Depression, Hallberg said.

A concrete structure that was the entrance and grandstand for the park’s first public swimming pool still stands but now overlooks tennis courts.

The view looking across Island Park swimming pool in Fargo on August 17, 1940. The concrete grandstand still stands, but there are now tennis courts where the pool once was. Courtesy: NDSU Archives
The view looking across Island Park swimming pool in Fargo on August 17, 1940. The concrete grandstand still stands, but there are now tennis courts where the pool once was. Courtesy: NDSU Archives

Fargo Arena, which held an ice rink at the corner of First Avenue South and Seventh Street, was in place for only a few years before that structure was moved to the airport to be used as a hangar, Hallberg said.

An art deco-style portion of the building still stands in the park, serving as a backdrop for diving boards in the public pool.

Statues of victory and peace

Other prominent features of Island Park are its statues, including the Grand Army of the Republic statue honoring a Civil War soldier coming to Fargo.

Many Confederate statues in the U.S. have been toppled or defaced recently. Hallberg doesn’t think the Grand Army of the Republic statue is controversial because most of the soldiers who settled in Fargo served in the Union army.

“I think the statue mostly celebrates the winners of the Civil War,” he said.

Another statue depicts Henrik Wergeland, a famous poet and writer from Norway who died in 1845.

The statue of Henrik Wergeland stands between basketball courts and the gazebo at Fargo's Island Park. Wergeland was a poet who was often called "the Abraham Lincoln of Norway." Chris Flynn / The Forum
The statue of Henrik Wergeland stands between basketball courts and the gazebo at Fargo's Island Park. Wergeland was a poet who was often called "the Abraham Lincoln of Norway." Chris Flynn / The Forum

His literary works are credited with leading the country toward independence from Sweden in 1905. As a reformer of politics, religion and prisons, he was known as "the Abraham Lincoln of Norway," according to NDSU Archives.

Philome recently started researching Wergeland to be certain he didn’t stand for something that OneFargo is against, and was thrilled to learn the man was a friend of the poor and oppressed.

“I'm excited to share that to a larger gathering at some point,” Philome said.

The statue was sculpted by another Norwegian, Gustav Vigeland, creator of a world-famous sculpture park in Oslo, Norway, and designer of the Nobel Peace Prize medal.

Gazebo gatherings

Another focal point of Island Park is a gazebo, formerly known as the Lewis Bandstand.

The Fargo Park District rents it out for special events, and it’s a gathering place for groups, including OneFargo.

Wess Philome speaks for the local OneFargo and Black Lives Matter groups Monday, June 8, during a press conference in Island Park, Fargo.
Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor
Wess Philome speaks for the local OneFargo and Black Lives Matter groups Monday, June 8, during a press conference in Island Park, Fargo. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

Money to build the bandstand was donated in the 1930s by businessman Newton A. Lewis, who wanted to give back to the community.

There were many people who couldn’t go to the lakes or on vacations during the summer, Hallberg said, so Lewis wanted a place for them to gather to hear speeches or live music.

In fact, he said the ceiling of the gazebo was designed in such a way to project voices or sound out into the park, something Philome discovered when he recently tried to sing under the structure.

View of the Lewis bandstand gazebo in Island Park in Fargo, with people visible seated on benches, on August 16, 1931. Courtesy: NDSU Archives
View of the Lewis bandstand gazebo in Island Park in Fargo, with people visible seated on benches, on August 16, 1931. Courtesy: NDSU Archives

Philome is known for issuing demands to city leaders in the name of reform, representation and inclusion.

Asked whether he’s considering a push to turn Island Park into Justice Island, he said he prefers to keep the name an informal one.

“I like just making it our thing, you know, instead of trying to force it on everybody else,” he said.