Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
A new project tallies the streets named after Confederate leaders alongside those named after civil rights personalities.
In America, public memory is skewed in favor of “those who were allowed to hold power,” Rebecca Solnit writes in the New Yorker. The country’s landscape is dotted with tributes to dead white men—many of whom fought to subjugate those with skins darker than theirs.
The Southern Poverty Law Center estimates 1,500 monuments, public buildings, and military bases around the country invoke the Confederacy—largely erected during spurts of racial progress and thus, in direct opposition to it. Meanwhile, the spaces where enslaved people and their descendants were tortured and killed largely go unmarked. And public monuments to their resilience and struggle for justice are too few and far between—particularly in the South.
But it’s not just structures that skew in favor of Confederate history in the South.
Two new maps created by Caroline Klibanoff, a digital public historian at Northeastern University, document street names. In the first, she tallies the number of streets named after Confederate leaders alongside those celebrating prominent figures from the civil rights era.
In the U.S. overall, the latter outnumber the former—but that flips in the South (first map below). While this map doesn’t necessarily offer a comprehensive count, it allows for a comparison of how the two historical occurences are regarded, remembered, and enshrined, Klibanoff writes:
Given the social capital invested in names of public spaces, the below examination of Southern street names and narratives provides a window into the larger story the region tells about itself.
The map shows variations among the former Confederate states; Virginia, home to several Civil War battlefields, contains far more Confederate-named streets, for example. Whereas in Alabama—where the Montgomery bus boycott took place, where Freedom Riders fighting segregation weathered the worst spates of violence, and where Martin Luther King, Jr. led the march from Selma to Montgomery—civil rights commemorations outweighed the Confederate ones.
Klibanoff’s second map concentrates on street names that include the word “Dixie” —a nickname for the antebellum South. (It comes from a minstrel song written by a Northerner, which was later adopted as the de-facto anthem of the Confederacy.)
Not surprisingly, the former member states of the Confederacy together contain more than twice the number of “Dixie” streets compared to the midwest, and ten times the amount in the North and West. Florida figures at the top of the list (in map below).
If America’s commitment to commemorating this “lost cause” wasn’t clear before, it has become so after the violence of a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Along with other commemorations to the Confederacy, Confederate street names glorify an era when a group of people weren’t treated like people. They tell the descendants of enslaved people, and other communities of color, that they do not belong on that street—in that neighborhood, school, or office; That they do not deserve freedom or equality; And that immense violence can occur—and has occurred— if they believe otherwise. My colleague Vann Newkirk recently grew up in the shadow of these symbols. Reflecting on his experience in The Atlantic, he asks:
How could Old Dixie be so worth remembering when, if it had survived, I might still be working those cotton mills today?
When factoring in streets and highways, there is quite a lot of work left for cities to do before they complete the task of scrubbing the symbols of American racism. And even if that were achieved, there’s another potentially more expansive project ahead: addressing the often-deplorable economic conditions of many streets celebrating civil rights leaders.