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On Reading: What’s In A Name?
There’s quite a stack of things that I have set aside ‘to read next’, whenever that comes along. More and more gets added to the stack and each book slowly waits its turn, probably too patiently. Every once in a while something comes along that moves right up to Next and becomes Now already. Never did I imagine a document on the naming of public spaces commissioned by our County Executive Dr. Calvin Ball to slip into the queue, much less become next and now as soon as I heard about it. It is an absolute must read, and a riveting page turner at that. I can’t look away, and I shouldn’t.
The document is the 262 page Public Spaces Commission Report, released on November 5, 2021. It lists out all public owned buildings in Howard County, Maryland, where I live, their names, and the relation of the person behind that name to any history of slave ownership and/or oppression. It documents participation in slavery, involvement in systemic racism, support for oppression, involvement in a supremacist agenda, violation of Howard County human rights laws, and even if the namesake includes racist and offensive terminology. It is pretty weighty; here is an example:
Wow. Page after page of analysis and detail like this, building after building. For a number of buildings, no direct relation to slavery was discovered, for many, though, there is a past to reconcile.
These buildings have an everyday presence in our lives: government administration buildings, schools, parks, libraries and such (the report put off addressing the 3,000+ street names in the county for another day). Building name elements are familiar and roll off our tongues like nothing matters: Warfield Building, Miller Branch, Atholton Park, River Hill, and so on. For many of us today, any association with history, benign or otherwise, is not really part of our everyday interaction. Places become more associated with what we do there, like attend a meeting, pay a ticket, check out a book, swing on a swing set. Knowing only so much, those that stop and think about it may take a moment and realize, “Oh, so that’s who the George Howard Building was named after, the first governor of the state from our county… interesting.” Up till now, that might have been the depth of curiosity, recognizing a bit of historic trivia.
Less trivial, and what this document lays out page after suffocating page, is a deeper understanding of our county’s past and its people of power or note now memorialized through building names: that they enslaved and profited so off of others. For locals who know these buildings and so casually say their names, it is jaw dropping. We Howard Countians must deepen our understanding of the past in our present, and begin a discussion about how to reconcile with it. This is a start.
This report really is vital knowledge. You can find and read or browse the Public Spaces Commission Report here. Seriously, take a look… you won’t be able to look away. Sincere thanks to this administration for commissioning it and bringing forward this part of Howard County history, and special thanks to the researchers behind the project (all are listed within the report). What a document you have made, what an important resource. As one would expect, the work does not stop here.
My Own Name. I have another reading project in the works, one that is going to come sooner after reading this report. I want to understand my own name, and its relationship to slavery. The Singletons originally came into this country in the 1700s and established a cotton plantation up river from Charleston, South Carolina. I hear they were also later successful in North Carolina. That they were successful means they relied on the work of slaves, the lives of slaves. I want to know more about that, to understand and document what is in the name I wear, the one that has been carried superficially into the present, a little too willfully unaware. As you know me, the project will start with reading, with books like Edward Ball’s Slaves in the Family, a model for the research, and Theodore Rosengarten’s Tombee, A Portrait of a Cotton Planter already in the queue, move through google search results of my own name, and eventually a trip south to visit places in person. It is a monumental task, but it will be a task that builds a more real monument to those that came before us and how they lived prior to our becoming. We owe it to them.
I usually end these with ‘Happy Reading’, but this is a different kind of reading.
Board Co-chair, HoCoPoLitSo