> In the name game, he wants to rewrite the rules
Activist pushes to delete names here of 'racists'
By E. Jeanne Harnois, Globe Correspondent | November 21, 2004
Columbus Avenue cuts through Boston's South End and Roxbury
neighborhoods; thousands travel the road every day. And on any given
school day, hundreds of students pass through the halls of the Louis
Agassiz Elementary School in Jamaica Plain.
Both of these locations have one important thing in common: They are
named after men accused by some of publicly denigrating other races and
supporting the slave trade. If Jamarhl Crawford, chairman of the New
Black Panthers' Boston chapter, has his way, men like Columbus and
Agassiz will no longer be honored in Boston. The first step in this
process is Crawford's proposed City Council resolution to change the
names of all such streets and schools, not to mention parks, hospitals,
and other city-owned property.
''To attend a school, to live on a street, get rest and relaxation in a
public park named after slave traders and rapists who thought black
people were less than human is not right," says Crawford. Crawford says
his ultimate goal is to ''challenge the vestiges of slavery that remain
in Boston, often taken for granted, and enter it into the public debate
and dialogue. Many don't even realize it themselves." His hope is to
raise awareness about the full nature of the men honored by the city.
''I hope to let people know that the jig is up," he says. ''It's a new
day with people who aren't afraid and who are thinking."
Since 2001, Crawford, 33, has headed the Boston chapter of the New Black
Panthers, a 15-year-old nationwide organization rooted in the beliefs of
the original Black Panther Party. As Crawford sees it, the New Black
Panthers fill a need in the city. ''We're young cats from the 'hood who
are trying to make something happen -- to improve things," he says,
declining to reveal membership numbers for the local chapter.
Crawford is from Boston, ''several generations deep. We're Blackstonians."
As for his education, Crawford says, ''I went to college for a minute. I
consider myself self-made: self-educated, self-contained, and
self-critical." He makes his living as a ''writer, graphic designer,
[doing] computer installations. I do a lot of things."
The idea behind his proposed resolution was partly based on Tingba
Apidta's book, ''The Hidden History of Massachusetts," which describes
the history of blacks in Massachusetts. In order to get a resolution
before the City Council, it has to be brought to the floor by a city
councilor, and City Councilor Chuck Turner, whose district includes
Roxbury, the South End, and the Fenway, is considering doing so. ''In
principle it's one I support," says Turner. ''The issue of slavery is an
issue we don't pay enough attention to as a society." To Turner, slavery
is not an antiquated idea, but a wound whose scar runs deep, for all
members of society.
''The paradigm of believing one person or group of people has the right
to control another has an effect beyond the enslavement of
African-Americans," he says. Turner points to the plight of women and
workers as further examples of the far-reaching effects the social mode
of slavery has on society.
''What he is doing is very important," Turner says of Crawford's
resolution. ''Very appropriate."
Turner and Crawford, though, are not entirely on the same page. ''It's
in terms of language and focus that we have a difference of
perspective," says Turner. ''The dilemma I have with the resolution is
that it is too broadly defined, that the councilors who don't want us to
deal with race issues will use its broadness to dismiss it and vote
against it without any serious discussion."
Turner points out that Crawford's proposal includes streets and
roadways. He says there is already a procedure in place for people to
change the name of streets on which they reside. This is for the
practical reason that it is those residents who will have to deal with
the impact a change of street address would have on their day-to-day
lives -- drivers' licenses, bank statements, etc. Turner says that
because of this, those councilors who do not want to address the
resolution will summarily dismiss it without giving it the respect it
deserves. Instead, Turner says he would be willing to work with Crawford
if Crawford would be willing to compromise.
''I think it would be a good process to highlight the general issue and
focus on schools," says Turner. ''Schools, because the question raised
is whether it is appropriate to have children going to schools named for
people who may have done honorable things, but were involved in the most
dishonorable human behavior." Another aspect of the resolution Turner
and Crawford agree on is that if the names of slave traders are removed
from streets, schools, and other city-owned property, the field would be
wide open for new names. Crawford says that he is not asking that the
replacement names automatically be those of black people.
Turner agrees. ''It's not just taking away the name of the slave
trader," he says, ''but it's thinking about the names of those who
advanced the course of humanity.
''I welcome the opportunity to work with Mr. Crawford. My disagreement
with him isn't one of principle, but of strategy, timing, and focus,"
Turner and Crawford have worked together in the past. ''He speaks to the
frustration of our younger generation -- trapped in a society that
doesn't want them, doesn't need them," Turner says of Crawford. ''He
expresses the resentment, anger, and bitterness that comes from feeling
like an alien in a country that your ancestors built. We need more
Jamarhl Crawfords to express this. The young people need to hear this."
Turner says that by starting small, by starting with changing the
schools, that can generate discussion to change other things as well. By
bringing the discussion into the public realm, he says, the proposal has
the capability of mushrooming into other areas. ''I can see us working
up to a time," he says, ''when the residents of the streets would be up
to the change. 'Let me think about if I want my mail to come to this
address. Let me talk to my neighbors.' " This to Turner is what
local-level politics is all about. ''We can lead up to this discussion.
To get from here to there is the real art of politics," he says.
For now, though, Crawford doesn't want to start small. He says he will
continue to fight, and at least one longtime community leader thinks his
approach is the right one.
''Sometimes it is important to put an issue on the table and allow it to
smolder whether it passes or not," says former state senator Bill Owens.
''Inhumanity should not be compromised."
''Black people are expected to just get over it," says Crawford. ''I
will, after we correct it."
© Copyright 2006 Globe Newspaper Company.