RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Phipps Street is a short stretch but reflects a long history of white supremacy that Carrboro residents say they don’t want to honor.
Judge Luther James Phipps spent more time expounding on his racist views than on the legal issues in the 1947 Freedom Ride case in a Chapel Hill court, according to James Peck, a white Freedom Rider who was arrested for challenging segregation laws in the Jim Crow South.
Thirteen years later, as a University Baptist Church deacon, Phipps again was a key voice, this time in preventing the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. from speaking in the church sanctuary. King instead visited with a UNC student group that met in the church’s basement.
But it may have been his less-notable, real-estate work that led the founders of the Plantation Acres neighborhood to name Phipps Street for their attorney in 1957.
Now, over 60 years later, Plantation Acres neighbors are looking for a way to give their community an identity less associated with slavery and segregation.
In June, neighbors told the Carrboro Town Council they no longer want to live in “Plantation Acres.” Later this year, they could return to the council with a new name and a petition for making a change. Resident Victor Jimenez said many neighbors want to change Phipps Street, too.
“That’s not who we want to be, and we want to be something different, more accepting, in the future,” said Jimenez, who has lived on Phipps Street for 20 years. “We don’t really want to necessarily forget that (history), but we’re just acknowledging that’s not where we want to go.”
A similar conversation is happening nationwide as communities confront tributes, large and small, to the Confederacy and its legacy.
The Wake County school board voted in June to rename Daniels Magnet Middle School, which honors Josephus Daniels, a white supremacist and former publisher of The News & Observer. N.C. State University trustees also removed Daniels’ name from a building.
And in Durham, where streets recall slave owners, segregationists and racists, from Duke to Cameron, Carr, Geer and Parrish, the Durham Housing Authority renamed Oldham Towers, a downtown high-rise that was named for a racist housing executive.
In the Watts Hospital-Hillandale neighborhood north of downtown Durham, two streets still honor the 28th U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, known for supporting both segregation and the Ku Klux Klan.
Neighbors have been talking about changing the names of Woodrow and Wilson streets, according to a June 30 Facebook post, but nothing has been proposed to the city yet. Durham does not appear to have local rules for how to rename a street.
POLITICS, MEANING IN NAMES
A community enshrines its history on street signs, buildings and neighborhood names, but also communicates by those names where its residents come from, what they value and who they want to be, said Derek Alderman, a University of Tennessee geography professor. As a political tool, naming also allows one group to establish its dominance, while excluding others, he said.
There’s a reason so many Triangle place names honor white people who lived in the post-Reconstruction South of Jim Crow laws and civil rights abuses, said Scott Kirsch, a geography professor at UNC-Chapel Hill.
The 1910s and 1920s were “a moment of strength for white supremacists where they could consolidate the gains they made in terms of education, propaganda and suppressing voting and civil rights and so forth,” Kirsch said in an interview with The News & Observer. “Renaming all these places ... just sort of spoke of how much power they had at the time, so that they could create these monuments and names.”
A community also shows what it values when names are not chosen to mark streets and places, said Alderman, who has studied extensively the politics of renaming existing streets for Martin Luther King Jr. Over 1,000 streets around the world, including 955 in 41 U.S. states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, were named for King between 1968 and 2017, he found.
Those streets were named for the civil rights leader in part to honor him, Alderman said.
“But it’s also the idea that this was an important moment for African Americans to claim public space, to claim a place at the table and to claim an ability to shape the way public space works and how it feels, and what it says about the past,” he said.
Conversations about renaming can be a crisis or an opportunity for regeneration, he added.
“I’m not advocating for a wholesale scrap and burn of all the names to every place, but I do think we need … to really be receptive to the fact that we have always been and will always be a dynamic, changing, diverse country,” he said.
HISTORIC HILLSBOROUGH HERITAGE
The town of Hillsborough ignited an already-heated conversation about heritage and racism in 2016 when the Town Board removed the words “Confederate Memorial” from the doorway of the Orange County Historical Museum on Churton Street. The building was constructed in 1934 as a town library, using $7,000 from the United Daughters of the Confederacy.
Anti-racist activists and demonstrators with Confederate flags have since spent many Saturdays arguing on downtown sidewalks.
Hillsborough’s history is one of protest, revolution and rebellion, from the hanging of six Regulators in 1771 to the first of two North Carolina constitutional conventions in 1788 and Union and Confederate troop encampments during the Civil War. Confederate Col. Charles Tew opened the Hillsborough Military Academy there in 1860.
In recent decades, the town has become more focused on telling “a more comprehensive history of our community,” Mayor Jennifer Weaver said. That could include changing Thomas Ruffin Street, named for a former N.C. Supreme Court chief justice and racist slave owner whose home today serves as Hillsborough’s Town Hall campus.
It’s not the only street in or around Hillsborough with a Civil War connection.
The Wildwood neighborhood on N.C. 86, just south of Hampton Pointe shopping center, has several streets named for Confederate military figures: Wade Hampton, Judah Benjamin, George Anderson, Alexander Stewart, Charles Tew, Walter Clark, Braxton Bragg and John Breckridge.
In 1865, the neighborhood and the shopping center — then the Dickson farm — were home to thousands of Confederate soldiers under the command of Gen. Joseph E. Johnston, who surrendered to Union Gen. William T. Sherman at Bennett Place on April 26, 1865.
James Freeland, who developed the Wildwood subdivision, as well as the Daniel Boone Village, was “a great history enthusiast,” local historian Scott Washington wrote in The News of Orange County. He doesn’t know why or when those streets in Wildwood were named, Washington told The N&O.
All local history is worth discussing, and there’s more to be told, especially about Hillsborough’s non-white residents, Weaver said.
“History is always being told and retold, and when things are named by only one particular group, that tells a story,” Weaver said. “I think that if names are changed, then … that is history-making in and of itself, and it’s part of the historical record of new knowledge and understanding that comes to light over time and how we need to tell our story.”
However, change often meets resistance, whether that’s out of concern about erasing history, the expense of changing street signs and maps, or how a new name could affect emergency services, business and residential mail.
The town of Chapel Hill encountered those concerns in 2004 when Airport Road was renamed for Martin Luther King Jr., affecting over 800 businesses and residents. New street signs included both names until 2017 when the words “Historic Airport Road” were removed.
There also is an emotional reaction to changing names that have been part of the landscape for many years, said Kirsch.
“I understand how people think times are changing, the sands are shifting beneath my feet, and now even the street I’m living on, they want to change it,” Kirsch said. “I understand that that can be unsettling. But my own view is that’s the kind of unsettling that we need, that really the best use of history is to reinterpret it in terms of contemporary understanding and context.”
Other times, the names stay the same, but their meaning changes.
The town of Carrboro, which is named for Durham industrialist, philanthropist and white supremacist Julian Carr, has wrestled with that option since 2016.
Carr, who ran a local mill and brought electricity to the town, is more infamously known for his speech at the dedication of the Silent Sam Confederate statue on UNC’s campus, where he bragged about whipping a Black woman in the street.
In 2019, the town posted the first of several planned “truth plaques” at Town Hall’s front door. The plaque notes that “Although the town continues to bear his name, the values and actions of Carr do not represent Carrboro today.”
The Town Council has asked its Truth Plaque Committee to consider another Carr who could be honored with the town’s name. At least four have been suggested: civil rights activist Johnnie Carr, blues drummer Sam Carr, and blues singers James and Leroy Carr.
That approach is common when there’s a lot invested in a name, but it’s just a first step, Alderman said.
“If you’re going to keep that name, but you’re really going to realign that name with a different person and a different set of social values, then you’re going to have to do a lot of social work, symbolic work, there’s a lot of ceremony that has to happen, there’s a lot of marketing that has to happen,” he said.
Some conversations will be hard, Washington said, especially when people romanticize history instead of look it squarely in the eye.
“We should all look at that issue very long and hard, and the events of the last few months have caused us all to take a long look at much more complex issues than I think we ever anticipated,” he said. “I think those are good conversations. Those are hard conversations, but they’re very good for us all to have.”