Put Place Names in Proper Context


I have to admit, I kind of enjoyed being respectfully blasted in last week’s commentary by Rasheed Shabazz (“Confronting Racist Symbols in Alameda’s Public Spaces,” March 29). His writing brought up a series of excellent points that to some degree deflate the problem with presentism. Given current events nationwide, and the point that at least one of Alameda’s racist references were christened during a period of Jim Crow-era oppression, Alameda would do well to reconsider the names of Haight Elementary School, Jackson Park and, let me add, Calhoun Street. 

The seed of my passion for history lays rooted partly in the World Book Encyclopedia and partly in Ken Burns’ The Civil War documentary which first aired in 1990. My family and I were glued to the set back in New Jersey. I quickly learned one of the largest villains in the story is none other than John C. Calhoun, namesake of an East End street. 

Calhoun was the U.S. senator who pushed for slavery’s expansion as one of a triumvirate of powerful senators that included Henry Clay and Daniel Webster. They formed compromises on the topic of slavery. The founders of Alameda, William Worthington Chipman and Gideon Aughinbaugh, likely idolized these three contemporaries for keeping the Civil War at bay for many years. Hence they named three streets on the East End for them. 

Calhoun and his cohorts helped maintain the status quo and the institution of slavery despite Webster being opposed to its expansion. These three men form the ideal of compromise in the American democratic system. That’s a topic for a whole different column.

By 1997, you’d find me graduated, relocated to the West Coast and discovering, much to my displeasure, that somehow the Civil War had tainted this isle so far removed from the blood-soaked battlefields of Antietam and Gettysburg I’d visited. What was Calhoun doing here? 

What made it even worse was he appeared out of context. I found nearby Clay Street, but what happened to Webster? At the time I didn’t know the street name had been moved due to duplication in 1877. I also idealized the Golden State with its free speech, love and all that. I was soon shocked to discover how much the opposite is true. 

Once I became involved in the Alameda Sun, the blatant racism of the Island City smacked me right in the face. One night in 2003 an episode of the TV news magazine program Dateline with Ted Koppel posed the question to Americans: “What is the Most Racist City in America?” Several callers weighed in, but I don’t remember the others. I just remember that night someone called and volunteered that my city,  Alameda, Calif., was the most racist city in America. 

Given that many of the Sun staff were transplants from elsewhere, this came as a bit of a wake-up call. Staff at the Sun joined with College of Alameda to host a forum to discuss this development. We still have the poster promoting that forum hanging in our office as a badge of both honor and shame. It is my distinct hope that after 15 years, Alameda has changed. 

Up until just recently, Andrew Jackson had little competition for the designation as “My Least Favorite President.” Violent and proud of it, he sent a huge number of enlightened people to their deaths on the Trail of Tears. That’s just a taste of his repugnance. 

But on the topic of context, I remember old Andy made an appearance in the December 1984 issue of Mad Magazine. They ran a spoof cover entitled a “Salute to the Jacksons” with Michael Jackson leading an all-star band comprised of presidential candidate Jesse Jackson on bass, Major League Baseball outfielder, Reggie “Mr. October” Jackson on backing vocals, Kate Jackson of Charlie’s Angels on the drums and a distinctly green Andrew Jackson (because we wouldn’t know him unless he was on the $20 bill) on lead guitar. 

Using Mad’s cover as inspiration, it comes clear that without any plaque providing context for the name, that might as well be Michael Jackson Park over there in the middle of Alameda’s Park Avenue. What’s the point in naming a place for someone if we’re not going to say why, or even who they are? 

Shabazz suggests renaming it Justice Park. Will that recall the achievements of Dave Justice who played for the Atlanta Braves back in the day? Maybe, if there’s nothing saying otherwise.

Now, back to John Calhoun. Without abolitionist Daniel Webster balancing the Triumvirate, the East End street name has become a travesty in my opinion. It’s even disrespectful to the Triumvirate and city founders themselves. Alameda shows favor to a proponent of slavery, and doesn’t provide the third name nearby and, as such, is out of balance. Just Clay and Calhoun remain because the more significant Webster Street on the West End took over the name to match Oakland’s.

If Alameda wants to take steps toward reversing the damage caused in that Nightline poll in 2003 or the overall sense throughout the Bay Area, and beyond, that Alameda is a racist city, renaming places like these might make a good public relations move. 

What could be lost are what I call “Windows to History” where people can become intrigued and learn about history through these place names. Future Alamedans may not find ways to their past without some references to local figures. By that rationale, we might not need a Lincoln Park when the guy already has two pieces of currency with his face on it. 

Instead, it might help local residents to have a place named for the Peralta family who played significant roles in East Bay history. We can close one window and open another. And please, let’s not forget to put up a plaque and provide context.

As we continue sliding down the slope we could worry about Japanese or pacifists’ views on Doolittle Drive and other military references embedded in local culture. Do people know who Ralph Appezato was? I better stop before I fill this entire edition with this one article.

Thank you again to Rasheed for his insight into our history. His voice and perspective are essential, as are many others, to make this a holistic discussion. 

I’d also like to reiterate what I thought was a valid point from Dennis and my editorial (“Rewriting History Now,” March 22). That if we’re going to rename any place, let’s strive to make the decision to honor someone or something new, or perhaps forgotten, not to dishonor someone who had been previously honored.