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Library Researchers Provide Facts-Based Foundation for Street Renaming Project
In correspondence with national conversations surrounding race and racism in the United States, local activists have been urging the City to address a long list of statues, buildings, monuments, parks, schools, and streets they say honor the legacy of the Confederacy, white supremacy, and slavery.
In response, Mayor Latoya Cantrell assembled a commission to consider the renaming of a list of about 20 streets and parks. The nine-person team is made up of members representing each council member, the Mayor, and the City Planning Commission.
Also involved in the process: The New Orleans Public Library’s Louisiana Division/City Archives & Special Collections.
Christina Bryant is the Archives’ director and said the City approached them about joining the project in late June, citing a need for professional-level research to determine whether or not the streets in question were, in fact, named for individuals or events tied to the Confederacy.
“Basically our goal is to present the fullest picture possible of why these places were given these names,” Bryant said. “We are here to provide an impartial report that is rooted in facts, and we’re very excited that they came to us for that. This is what we’re trained to do, this is what we went to school to do, it is definitely something that we are happy to do. We’re glad we can put out there for them.”
Archivists Brittanny Silva and Andrew Mullins dove into the research and took the lead on the project, digging into historical documents like maps, city ordinances, family histories, and newspaper articles.
“It became apparent very quickly, there isn’t always a clear-cut documentation of intention, especially when it comes to street naming,” Silva said. “Because of that, we’re really focusing on determining the historical context that can give us clues as to what the intention of the name was.”
That contextualization includes information surrounding what the original names of streets were, when they were named or renamed and by whom, and whether or not those people had ties to the Confederacy or institutions of white supremacy.
“Knowing that, you can read between the lines of what the intention was, even if there isn’t a City ordinance detailing that reasoning,” Silva said.
They said some streets have more clear-cut histories than others.
“We all know who Robert E. Lee was, we don’t have to do extensive research to confirm the arguments of why that street needs to be renamed,” Silva said. “But a lot of the names on this list, some of the lesser known streets, have brought some interesting information to light.”
Many of those streets are located in the Lakeview and Carrollton areas, Silva and Mullins said, pointing to Leonidas Street as an example.
The street is commonly thought to be named after Leonidas Polk, the first Episcopal bishop of Louisiana. He was also a general in the Confederate Army and the owner of enslaved people.
According to city records, Mullins said Leonidas Street was laid out in 1836, at least two years before Polk arrived in Louisiana, suggesting the street couldn’t have been named in his honor. However, Mullins argues that it is not that simple.
“Obviously, after a certain amount of time, it became widely associated with him, so even if it wasn’t intentionally named for Leonidas Polk – which we’re not saying it isn’t – it’s up to the commission to decide whether that original intent is more important, or the current association,” Mullins said.
Silva said the same can be said for the streets in Lakeview, a neighborhood documents show was planned in 1867. However, development in the area did not begin until the early 1900s, Silva said, and there are no city rules associated with street naming until 1925.
So, she said, while there are detailed plans for the neighborhood dating back to immediately after the Civil War, it is quite possible those names were not decided until decades later.
“We’ve been looking at a lot of different materials to provide as much historical context as possible,” Silva said. “Alongside city ordinances, we’ve collected things like newspaper articles that capture the city’s attitude towards some of these waves of Confederate memorials, to see if those correspond with the street name changes.”
All of that and more will be included in their report, which the Archives team described as an ongoing and fluid project, evolving as more questions and issues arise.
“This is intensive research. This is knowing our collection, knowing what we have, and knowing how to use it,” Bryant said.
The current renaming debates echo a fight that led to the 2017 removal of four monuments honoring the Battle of Liberty Place, P.G.T Beauregard, Jefferson Davis, and Robert E. Lee.
While Bryant said the Archives staff helped assist individuals and groups to conduct research during that process, she said their involvement this time around is much more hands-on. In fact, to her knowledge, Bryant said this is the first time the Archives staff has played this integral of a role within a City project.
But, she said she hopes it will not be the last.
“I feel like this is a big deal, and I hope in the future it produces more of this type of collaboration,” she said.
All three researchers said they are proud to be involved in this project and firmly believe their work will result in a more fair and facts-based process of renaming these streets and parks.
“It’s exciting and fulfilling to be using our expertise and the profession that we are trained in to contribute to this specific initiative, in a way that grounds it in the archival profession,” Silva said. “By forming the commission and relying on professional researchers to provide the basis of the argument, it gives transparency and a foundation to the discussion that City Council can have with the community.”
In their research, the Archives team has found that through much of history, the naming of streets was not a public issue, but rather was done behind closed doors by a select group of people who had access to land, money, or politics.
That, Mullins said, will not be the case this time around.
“Already, just by us doing this research, is making it a much more democratic, much more discursive process,” he said. “There’s actually going to be public input this time, and there already has been. This wouldn’t have started without public input.”
The commission recently published a form for the public to submit suggestions for new street names, further elevating that public input.
As representatives of a public library and municipal archive, the researchers are dedicated to presenting an impartial report, which they say will give more validity to the decision, regardless of the outcome.
“It shows that the choice is grounded in facts rather than someone’s opinion,” Silva said.
Mullins and Silva submitted their report to the New Orleans Street Renaming Commission Wednesday (Aug. 19), which includes a total of 25 streets and three parks their research shows are named for people, organizations, or events with Confederate ties.
The final decision whether or not to rename streets will be in the hands of City Council, after the Street Renaming Commission reviews Silva and Mullins’ report and drafts an official list of streets and parks to be addressed.
“We’re going to put this information out there, and it’s for anybody to use. We can’t instruct personal opinion, but as part of our purpose and our ethics, we need to present the fullest picture out there,” Bryant said.
The Archives team would like to thank the Historic New Orleans Collection and Tulane University Special Collections for assisting them in their research.