Practicality can become a mask that local government hides behind when faced with public requests to rename streets honoring historical figures associated with the Ku Klux Klan and white supremacy.
For UT researchers Jordan Brasher, a PhD candidate in geography, and Derek Alderman, professor of geography, the handling of these renaming controversies demonstrates an unwillingness of some cities in the United States to come to terms with racist aspects of their histories and public spaces. They published their findings in a paper for the journal Social & Cultural Geography.
Focusing on a renaming controversy in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Brasher and Alderman spent two years researching historical archives, conducting an in-depth review of city council meeting minutes and local news coverage, and analyzing interviews with residents and city officials.
In 2013, Tulsa voted to rename a major street in its downtown arts district, Brady Street, to M. B. Brady Street. The original name honored one of the city’s founders, Wyatt Tate Brady, a known member of the KKK who also played a role in the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, in which mobs carried out attacks on black residents and businesses. The new name commemorates a Civil War photographer with the same last name but no known affiliation with Tulsa.
“Our analysis showed that convenience and practicality in city council politics sanitized the legacy of Tate Brady,” Brasher said. “Elected representatives found it more politically convenient to change the subject by simply cleansing the landscape of troublesome reminders of past injustices rather than dealing with the messy and contradictory realities of white supremacy.”
The researchers argue that the local government’s failure to fully rename the street was a missed opportunity to come to terms with the trauma of the 1921 event for the city’s residents and to honor African American victims and survivors.
While geographers are interested in the role street names play in politics, economic development, and social justice, Brasher and Alderman argue that the general public also shares an interest. Renaming controversies have become part of a larger national struggle over urban space and what to do regarding displays such as street names and monuments that may represent historical violence or discrimination against minority populations. This conflict was evidenced in the events of the 2015 Charleston church shooting, 2017 Charlottesville protests, and subsequent removal controversies across the United States.
“The politics of commemorating people formerly associated with the Confederacy, slaveowners, and other white supremacists poses political and social problems,” Brasher said.
If handled responsibly, however, these renaming controversies can provide opportunities for commemorative reform and racial justice, Brasher and Alderman argue.
“We hope this study shows people how to approach such commemorative controversies from the perspective of the potential they have to offer healing and repair to parts of our cities and communities that have long been wounded, neglected, and marginalized,” Brasher said.
Responding to continuing public criticism, the city of Tulsa recently announced it would change the name of M. B. Brady Street to Reconciliation Way in July 2019.
The article “Was Tulsa’s Brady Street really renamed? Racial (in)justice, memory-work, and the neoliberal politics of practicality” was written in collaboration with Aswin Subanthore, George Washington University adjunct geography professor.
Brian Canever (865-974-0937, firstname.lastname@example.org)