Sunday, April 21, 2024

Maya Counter prepares to speak during Monday’s meeting of the City Council about a proposed name change for the Agassiz neighborhood. (Photo: Marc Levy)

A name change for the Agassiz neighborhood that would remove the taint of white supremacy won approval Monday from the City Council. It is now up to city staff to work with residents to decide “how to arrive at an appropriate, official name change.”

“We do not want ourselves or our children or our grandchildren walking through streets named after someone so heinous and disrespectful, for lack of a better way of putting it,” said councillor E. Denise Simmons, referring to Swiss-born scientist Louis Agassiz, famous for founding Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology and infamous for promulgating racist notions. He believed in polygenism, the idea that human races are of different origins, and that whites were intellectually superior to other races.

“Louis Agassiz was, although a renowned scholar from Harvard, not a good person. What he did to subjugate people of color, African Americans in particular, was unconscionable,” Simmons said. “It is inappropriate to have a neighborhood named after a gentleman who made it his life’s work to say [African Americans] were subhuman.”

The proposal to change the name has been led by Maya Counter, a resident of the neighborhood and a senior at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School. In 2002, a School Committee vote renamed the neighborhood’s Agassiz elementary school to address the same issue – instead honoring Maria L. Baldwin, who in 1899 became the first black female school principal in the Northeast there – “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.

Counter spoke Monday during public comment, explaining how she decided to research her neighborhood during an advanced placement history course and discovered the same offensive material about Agassiz as residents had two decades earlier. “His views helped public policy and lawmakers support the continued oppression of black Americans,” Counter said. “It is past time we recognize Agassiz’s legacy for what it was.”

Her suggestion was to follow the example set with the elementary school and rename the neighborhood for Baldwin. The idea has been received well during her outreach efforts, including a January meeting of the Agassiz Neighborhood Council. It also anticipates orders by Simmons last year that asked city staff to identify public places throughout Cambridge named for people who engaged in slavery and “similarly shameful acts” with an eye toward renaming then.

Crescent Street resident Kate Frank called Counter’s proposal “a gift, because it allows the neighborhood an opportunity to address … something unnoticed by some, while offensive to others.”

After praising the quality of Counter’s work and research on the project, Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui called for a council vote to send the project onward to the city manager to be handled “in a timely manner.” Councillors adopted the motion unanimously.

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.