The intersection of Lee Ave. and Grant Street in Little Rock, Arkansas.
The intersection of Lee Ave., named for Confederate General Robert E. Lee, and Grant Street, named for President Ulysses S. Grant, is shown in Little Rock, Arkansas. Danny Johnston/AP

What the global history of street renaming can teach us about America's monument battle

Like the Charleston Massacre of 2015 before it, the white supremacist violence in Charlottesville earlier this month has served as a catalyst that is reigniting the movement to dismantle the symbols of white supremacy in the United States. From Baltimore to Lexington, cities across the U.S. have either removed Confederate monuments from public spaces already or are currently considering such proposals. Yet many Confederate memorials across the country remain in place despite calls for their removal.

According to a recent study conducted by the Southern Poverty Law Center, there are more than 1,500 symbols of the Confederacy in public spaces throughout the U.S., and the actual figure is likely much higher if street names are added to the list. In fact, one recent study found that there were at least 1,417 streets named in honor of Confederate leaders nationwide. (Interestingly, the same study documented 1,426 streets named after Civil Rights leaders as well.)

More than 100 public schools across the country, many of which have sizable African American student populations, are named in honor of prominent Confederate leaders. There are also 10 U.S. military bases that bear Confederate names, and even New York’s Fort Hamilton has two Confederate-named streets, one honoring Robert E. Lee and another for Stonewall Jackson.

Over the past few decades, cultural geographers and other scholars have examined the politics of place naming around the world. Such studies offer important lessons to bear in mind amidst the current debate over Confederate commemoration. One of these key lessons is that those with political power have long used place naming and other forms of commemoration as a means of legitimizing their own political ideology by giving it the appearance of spatial permanence and fixity in the landscape. This is precisely what white supremacists did during the Jim Crow era in an effort to naturalize white dominance through public commemoration.

Another key lesson, however, is that any given spatial order is never as “natural” or permanent as it seems, since throughout history places have often been renamed and monuments replaced when different regimes come to power or when the values of a society change over time. This is especially evident during times of political upheaval, such as after the fall of the Soviet Union, the end of apartheid in South Africa, and even during the U.S. occupation of Iraq. The current movement to change Confederate place names is yet another example that underscores how the commemorative priorities of the present need not always align with those of the past. In such contexts, changing the memorial landscape to better reflect present-day values is not the exception but the rule, since history is replete with cases of de-commemoration and re-commemoration.  

Since the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, urban streetscapes in the United States have become “cultural arenas” in which the politics of race, place, and memory are played out through the renaming of city streets. These struggles over street renaming long pre-date the recent upsurge of public interest in the removal of Confederate monuments and street names following the horrific events of Charleston and Charlottesville.

For decades, African Americans and Latinos have been at the forefront of renaming streets, parks, plazas, schools, and libraries after civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and César Chávez as part of broader calls for social justice. Those opposing these efforts have commonly made at least one of two arguments—either that street naming is an insignificant issue and that city hall should instead address more pressing concerns, or that street names are significant and the act of renaming “erases history.” The former argument wrongly assumes that the symbolic domain is inherently insignificant and that politics must always be a zero-sum game, while the latter is based on the faulty logic which conflates the need to understand the past with the honorific celebration and glorification of particular historical figures.

After Charlottesville, the importance of commemorative symbols as flashpoints in larger debates has become obvious to all, and white supremacists and their apologists have framed themselves as defenders of “history” against those seeking to “erase” it. Yet, as any historian worth their salt knows, history is not a fixed and frozen story told from a God’s eye view. Rather, each generation views the past from the vantage point of their own present. Within the current context, the charge of historical erasure is an extraordinarily hypocritical argument to make given the massive amount of forgetting and misrepresenting of black histories, not to mention indigenous peoples’ histories, that have accompanied Confederate memorialization.

There is perhaps no better example of the politics of memory and forgetting than the history of street naming in Hollywood, Florida. On July 3, 2017, just over a month before the events in Charlottesville shook the nation, the City Commission of Hollywood voted to initiate the process of renaming three of the city’s streets bearing the names of Confederate generals: Nathan Bedford Forrest, John Bell Hood, and Robert E. Lee.

For over a decade, local activists such as Benjamin Israel had called for these streets to be renamed not only due to their associations with the Confederacy but also because all three men were staunch supporters of white supremacy and Forrest in particular had served as a leading member of the Ku Klux Klan. Both Forrest and Hood streets go directly through a predominantly African American neighborhood known as Liberia on the city’s east side, making them daily reminders of the terror that white supremacists have inflicted on the African American community.

In recent years, Black Lives Matter activists in Hollywood have demanded that Forrest, Hood, and Lee streets be renamed for yet another reason: The naming of these streets—much like the installation of Charlottesville’s Robert E. Lee statue in 1924—was used as a tool of racial intimidation in the 1920s during the Jim Crow era.

In fact, Hollywood’s original street plan did not include roads named after Confederate generals in the Liberia neighborhood. Instead, the initial developer named streets in Liberia after U.S. cities with large, robust black populations. However, after the developer’s death, three of those streets were mysteriously renamed in honor of white supremacists. In a very real sense, then, those calling for the renaming of streets in Hollywood and elsewhere are seeking to challenge the discredited values of the Jim Crow era just as much as the Confederacy itself.

The naming of Hollywood’s streets after a leader of the KKK and other white supremacists was a form of “psychological” violence, says Carmella Gardner, a long-time resident of Hollywood’s Liberia neighborhood who currently lives on Forrest Street. “[Whites] say they want us to be free,” she told one reporter, “yet at the same time they place these signs of oppression and degradation [in our community]....It’s likely they want to show they are still in power and in control.” Through the renaming of streets, proponents such as Gardner have sought to challenge the symbolic violence that such honorific emblems of white supremacy continue to perpetrate from one street corner to the next.

On August 30, 2017, Hollywood will hold the final vote to determine if its Confederate namesakes will come down, and this decision along with several others being debated from Atlanta to Los Angeles will determine which way we go next: Have we reached a watershed moment in changing the recalcitrant valorization of white supremacy or is this merely another reaffirmation of an unjust geography of memory?

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