What’s in a name?
Working in historic preservation teaches you a lot about the breed in North Carolina. These historic places have stories to tell, if you just listen, and lessons for the future.
Racism is deeply rooted in the history of our state and its current life. Many counties are named for slave owners, as are many cities. Most, if not all, of the streets in downtown Raleigh bear these names. Charlotte’s too. Many colleges and parks across the country have been named after slave owners or ardent white supremacists.
We have Jackson, Jacksonville, and Jackson County, all named in honor of Andrew Jackson, responsible for the deaths of thousands of Native Americans. We honor his hometown in Waxhaw.
In reality, we simply cannot rename everything that has been named in honor of prominent white men from another era. But we can begin to tell their stories with a better understanding of how a system of racial oppression supported them.
If you’re white like me, once you learn about slavery, Jim Crow, disenfranchisement, chain gangs, lynching, redlining, and other forms of discrimination, you’ll want to either hide your head in shame or do something for the benefit of future generations.
Our places, whether historic buildings or neighborhoods, provide us with opportunities to have difficult conversations. Cameron Park, founded on land that once belonged to North Carolina’s greatest slave owner, spent 100 years before welcoming its first black owners.
As a neighborhood and as a society, we benefit from conversations about the origin of names and their meanings. We don’t necessarily need to shy away from it out of shame. Achieving diversity will require more than a name change.
The first serious discussion about Cameron Park’s name change was sparked by fears of damage after the peaceful Black Lives Matter protests in downtown Raleigh sparked violence. The “good authority” said cars parked on the street would be vandalized. National Guard troops were stationed at the edge of the neighborhood. Social media during the COVID era turned anxiety into frenzy.
Attitudes towards the name are generally divided across generations. A previous generation helped redeem the neighborhood from the fraternities and slum lords who crammed students into old houses, from basement to attic. We were proud of how the neighborhood produced progressive political leaders.
Newer buyers have generally appreciated its location and new status. They weren’t particularly interested in the history of the neighborhood or its historic buildings.
A recent call for a name change proclaimed: “… every new generation has the right and responsibility to make their own moral judgments, informed by history but not beholden to the past for the sake of the past. The white supremacists of 1898 probably felt the same way.
Preservation North Carolina, where I work, has a long history of trying to use preservation to advance civil rights and social justice. The pre-war Bellamy Mansion in Wilmington and its restored slave quarters hosted many stimulating tours and programs on Slavery, 1898, the Wilmington Ten, and more. The national road marker at the site pays homage to a slave plasterer, not the slave family.
We need to encourage uncomfortable conversations and thoughtful actions that benefit the future. Can we discuss the lives of slave owners in the context of their time without being closed off? Can we search for the slaves who once lived near Cameron Park? Reach out to identify their descendants?
Perhaps the neighborhood could refocus its energy on creating scholarships for students at historically black colleges and universities or for descendants of Cameron slaves, which would have a lasting impact and bring the neighborhood together.
Ultimately, if Cameron Park is renamed, we will be able to settle back into our comfortable homes, feel righteous and no longer be bothered by the thorny history of the breed.
Myrick Howard is President of Preservation North Carolina and a resident of Cameron Park. He has worked to save historic buildings across the state for 40 years.