Tag Archives: Racism

Agassiz, what’s in a Name

21 Jan

Support builds for a ‘Baldwin neighborhood,’ removing racist association of Agassiz name

Cambridge Rindge and Latin School senior Maya Counter, right, leads a discussion Tuesday about changing the name of the Agassiz neighborhood. With her is Ann Charlotte Hogstadius, her mother. (Photo: Tom Meek)

A name change for the Agassiz neighborhood won unanimous approval this week at a community meeting, with the caveat by several voters that more conversation is needed.

The proposal to change the name to the “Baldwin neighborhood” comes from Maya Counter, a resident of the neighborhood and co-president of the Black Student Union at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School. But it’s not new – Counter, a senior, came upon the idea her sophomore year while researching a history class project and learning of the “flawed science and racist beliefs” of namesake Louis Agassiz.

It’s also not an idea new to the neighborhood. In 2002, a School Committee vote renamed the Agassiz School on Oxford Street to address the same discomfort; addressing the neighborhood name might have followed, according to people active in neighborhood politics at the time, had not many of the students and parents who pushed for the change felt burned out by the effort.

The neighborhood’s Maria L. Baldwin School was known as the Agassiz School until 2002. (Photo: Marc Levy)

There was little disagreement Tuesday about Agassiz and the context of his legacy. The Swiss-born scientist who lived from 1807 to 1873 was famous for founding Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, but controversial for pushing racially divisive theories as science. He believed in polygenism, the idea that human races are of different origins, and that whites were intellectually superior to other races. He has been discredited for his racism, and his belief in creationism lost out to the evolutionary theories of contemporary Charles Darwin.

His name was taken off the local elementary school in honor of Maria Baldwin, who in 1899 became the first black female school principal in the Northeast – “the most distinguished position achieved by a person of negro descent in the teaching world of America,” W.E.B. Du Bois said in 1917.

It was at the school that the Agassiz Neighborhood Council met Tuesday to give Counter the “constructive conversation” she requested, and a positive reaction by the approximately 30 neighborhood residents and staff in attendance.

Maria Baldwin, circa 1885. (Photo: Library of Congress)

Wider involvement sought

But there were concerns about process after Counter announced she had reached out to Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui and planned to present to the City Council at month’s end.

Many at the ANC meeting expressed a strong desire to be involved in the process and felt that one meeting in a neighborhood of approximately 6,000 residents – with only two dozen in attendance – was not enough. (To prepare for the meeting, Counter posted about the idea on the neighborhood social media site Nextdoor. As at the meeting, there was strong support for a name change, though also some challenges that “you can’t erase the past.”) Some people at the meeting were concerned that Counter was rushing to get the change done before graduation.

Some also floated the notion that perhaps the neighborhood was named after Agassiz’s wife, Elizabeth Cabot, a naturalist and the founder of Radcliffe College, and therefore the name might still be applicable. But correspondence from Charles Sullivan, executive director of the Cambridge Historical Commission, stated, “The Agassiz neighborhood was named after the Agassiz School, which is now the Baldwin School.”

No clear-cut process

Renaming a neighborhood lacks a clear-cut process, despite the recent change of Area IV to “The Port.” There too, race played a role, as residents believed the term “Area IV” was a police designation (it was created by the city facilitate analysis of the then upcoming 1940 U.S. Census). The change was made official by a City Council vote in 2015 after several rounds of community solicitation. In that situation too, not everyone felt the process had been inclusive enough, said Lee Farris, a resident of The Port who is active in civic affairs.

The Agassiz change may be simpler. A policy order by city councillor E. Denise Simmons approved unanimously in April asks the city to review the names of streets, schools and public buildings “that may be named in honor of those who have ties to the American slave trade” and work on renaming them “as soon as possible.” Agassiz, while not a slave owner and on record as an abolitionist, could be linked to slavery for espousing the beliefs that enabled it.

“Why keep it?”

There is already some eagerness for a name change among the hosts of the Tuesday meeting.

In 2007 the nonprofit that provides after-school services, runs the Maud Morgan Arts Center, hosts the Agassiz Neighborhood Council meetings and provides other community services, was rebranded the Agassiz Baldwin Community – a half-measure that doesn’t sit well with Counter. “Why keep it?” she said in an interview before the meeting, referring to the “Agassiz” part of the name. “He thought she was biologically inferior. It’s disrespectful to her.”

At the meeting, the nonprofit’s executive director, Maria La Page, agreed that having the name “Agassiz” upfront was a burden for an organization that holds inclusion at its core.

The Agassiz neighborhood is between Harvard and Porter squares and touches on Somerville, defined by Massachusetts Avenue to the west and Kirkland Street to the south.

Cambridge Delves Inward on Racism

27 Nov

 

A rally at City Hall held Aug. 14, 2017, responded to a violent white supremacist gathering in Charlottesville, Virginia, but only hinted at some of the racial animosity to come in America and Cambridge. (Photo: Marc Levy)

The city launches its Cambridge Digs Deep sessions Wednesday, a program initiated by Mayor Marc McGovern and city councillor Sumbul Siddiqui to spur a citywide conversation about race, diversity and equity. The program partners with the Disruptive Equity Education Project – a professional development organization that specializes in building community and breaking down barriers based on stereotypes and preconceptions. Deep will lend its services to help facilitate and shape the conversation.

Part of the impetus for the series were ongoing concerns raised by the Black Student Union at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, which also get a hearing at Tuesday’s meeting of the School Committee, and recent viral flares of racism including a July confrontation between a Harvard employee and the mother of a biracial child who was playing “noisily” and a public schools employee who used the N-word with a student. Siddiqui also cited a divisive climate created by the administration of President Donald Trump and national events such as last year’s white supremacist gathering in Charlottesville,Virginia, and the migrant caravan seeking asylum at the southern border.

“Cambridge is not truly the progressive utopia that everyone sees it as,” which makes constant examination and reevaluation necessary, McGovern said.

One of the tools Deep and chief executive Darnisa Amante will bring to the table is the exploration of microaggressions versus macroaggressions, as well as the understanding of intent and impact. As illustration, McGovern cited a scenario in which a teacher on the first day of a high school honors English class asked the lone black student if he was “in the right class.”

“The teacher might not think they are racist,” McGovern said, “but there’s an impact.”

Siddiqui, a Pakistani-born, Muslim woman raised in Cambridge affordable housing, added, “It’s also simply how people mispronounce different names or dismiss them as ‘too difficult.’”

McGovern and Siddiqui believe their deep roots in Cambridge will help give the workshops a historical perspective, and said they hope for a dialogue that will “get people outside their comfort zones and begin to see the ways in which identities – such as race, class, gender, religion – impact our lives.” Expected outcomes are a “bit of a work in progress,” McGovern admitted. “We’re going to be learning as we go.”

“We don’t expect a prescribed list of policies,” Siddiqui echoed, “but we’ll be listening.”

Also on the agenda will be issues of class and inclusion made newly prominent by an affordable housing overlay zoning proposal raised by the Envision Cambridge master plan process. 

“Our goal is to ensure that people can talk about race and inequity – and know the differences between diversity, equity, and inclusion, race, racism and oppression – in a way that does not ostracize others and/or make anyone feel unwelcome,” Amante said. “We will, however, push with love.”

The initial Cambridge Digs Deep session takes place at 6 p.m. Wednesday in the gymnasium of the Fletcher Maynard Academy, 225 Windsor St. Four more are scheduled for the early part of 2019. The sessions are set up to build on each other, but there is no requirement to have attended previous sessions to be part of the conversation. McGovern and Siddiqui said they hope for a strong turnout and a constructive dialogue.