Overdue renaming of Agassiz neighborhood should begin a larger reckoning with history
When I emailed the Cambridge Historical Commission last summer about possibly changing or removing the plaque that commemorates Louis Agassiz on Quincy Street, I heard back almost immediately. I’d been upset: How could this city, the one whose schools I’d learned my sense of justice in, maintain historical markers that commemorate uncritically figures such as Agassiz, a proponent of the worst types of pseudo-scientific racism – the very type that, through the patronage of other Cantabrigian notables like Charles Eliot, morphed into the violent eugenics political regimes of our country and beyond. Charles Sullivan, the long (long) time executive director of the commission, informed me in his email that Louis Agassiz was an “internationally significant scientist whose name still designates a Cambridge neighborhood” and that the plaque “simply recites those facts.”
Well, with the recent vote in the City Council to recommend the changing of the Agassiz neighborhood name, it seems like we have but one excuse to contend with. And that’s the so-called “facts.”
Our historical infrastructure is important in Cambridge. Yes, growing up here I know that the city has an outsized impression of its own importance. In 1876, during the nation’s centennial celebrations, the Ladies Centennial Committee published the wonderfully inaccurate “Cambridge of 1776,” a pseudo-historical account of the city during the early period of the American Revolution and the siege of Boston. In it, the editors claim the city as the nation’s first “capital” – at least in spirit, they said. It’s where the nation came together. And the public, for better or worse, recognizes this strange assertion, bringing millions of tourists a year to visit our “ancient” university and stumble through tours of our historical sites. It’s this attitude of importance, as inflated as it may be, that sticks with me: We are somewhat important, and we must act like that importance matters. And it might be a side effect of this attitude that makes me think that we need to get the history right, and to do so we actually need to have people in charge of our city’s historical infrastructure who know their stuff, that are actual historians with the nuance to know that “facts” are not just “facts” but that every piece of historical infrastructure carries with it a sense of our community’s values. What we say about ourselves is us. Why do we include some facts, and not others? Why has our city never updated, rationalized or thought out its historical presentations and infrastructure in a cohesive manner? Why have we let myths and half-truths linger in our markers? Why has nothing changed in the past 30 years?
The “facts” of our historical markers are funny. On the marker for “Tory Row” at the corners of Brattle, Mason and Ash streets, the brutally violent slave plantation system that gave rise to the wealth that built those grand 17th and 18th century mansions gets muted to homes of “Wealthy families loyal to the crown” and the Vassals, considered a family of violent, decadent psychopaths even in their own times, are called “Tory.” Hundreds of enslaved people died horribly on the Vassal plantations in Jamaica. In his commemorative plaque, Agassiz, a peddler of racist pseudo-science, is merely a “Swiss Naturalist.” Of course, these are facts of a type. But they’re the type of facts that elide the violence of our past purposefully. They are at best omissions, and at worst complicit in our city’s continued white supremacy. Any contemporary historian would tell you this, and in fact, text after text has been published in the past three decades exploring and better understanding how New England’s white supremacist economic core, and later complicity, encapsulates the conundrums of American racist ideology.
The recent campaign to change the Agassiz neighborhood’s name, wonderfully spearheaded by Cambridge Rindge and Latin School senior Maya Counter, was long needed. The Agassiz school had been renamed nearly two decades prior. We, as a city, knew then that a person such as Agassiz needed to be reconsidered, that the euphemistic “facts” chosen years before to describe him were there to elide the voices and humanity of those he disregarded as less-than, as subhuman, as not worth existence. The issue seems to be any city system at all accountable to the power of nonwhite voices and ethos has reacted, but the city Historical Commission has not been accountable to those same voices. This is the secret this city holds: We are “progressive” but still in many ways blithely celebrate our racist past. It’s time we update our Historical Commission to reflect our values.
Sean A. Cleary, Gerry Street