National trends of heightened partisanship have led, among other directions, to reconsiderations of longstanding social tensions. The greatest of these wove the tragic history of slaveholding, the devastating Civil War of 1861-1865 that abolished it and long struggles around Reconstruction, Jim Crow repression, school segregation, the Civil Rights movement, anti-discrimination in education, employment and housing, and the goals of Equal Opportunity that still engage us.
Over time, we learned that some of our historical icons had backgrounds in the Era of Slavery, including our first President and subsequent Presidents. During the seventeenth century, several residents of land that later became Brookline owned slaves who worked on their farms and in their households. There have been efforts to expunge some of the relics from the Era of Slavery, including statues of Confederate officeholders and soldiers and names given to streets, buildings and other public features.
This Article poses to Town Meeting, and should it pass will pose to our Naming Committee, the question of whether one of Brookline's most prominent streets should continue to carry the name of a major slaveholder. Washington Street threads through Village Square and past Brookline's Town Hall, main library, courthouse, police station and fire headquarters, then heads northwest toward Brighton Center and through Oak Square into Newton.
As John Rhodenhamel recounts in his illustrated biography [1998, Yale University Press], our nation's first President, George Washington, was born into a Virginia family of slaveholders in 1732. He acquired much more property and many more slaves through his wife, Martha. Slavery is an inseparable part of his life history. In the economy of his place and his time, he could not otherwise have sustained such a large, agrarian enterprise as the one he managed.
There is evidence in Washington's personal correspondence that he had turned against slavery before he became President, but he did not carry such a view into his public life. The will that he left when he died in 1799 freed all 125 slaves he then owned and provided a substantial share of his estate toward their education and support. Brookline should review Washington's history more thoroughly than an explanatory note such as this one can do and should consider whether maintaining the naming of Washington Street reflects community values.
|Official Text of the Article
Resolution calling for consideration of renaming Washington Street
To see if the Town will adopt the following Resolution or will amend and adopt the Resolution or will act on anything relative thereto:
WHEREAS, Brookline has become increasingly concerned about slaveholding associated with people after whom Town features are named, and
WHEREAS, George Washington, after whom Washington Street was named, was a slaveholder during most of his life, including years when he served as our nation's first President,
NOW THEREFORE, BE IT HEREBY RESOLVED, AS FOLLOWS:
The Town calls on the Town's Naming Committee consider renaming all or parts of Washington Street, using the name or names of one or more notable people who have resided within the current area of the Town, and to report thereon to the next Special or Annual Town Meeting beginning on or after November 1, 2018.
Or act on anything relative thereto.