A new front has opened up in the culture war: names.
Emblazoned across street signs and public schools, names often immortalize historical figures, whose actions and beliefs may not play so well in a contemporary context. When once-celebrated people come under fresh scrutiny, cities and states have to grapple with the characters who’ve lent their names to important public spaces—and the questionable legacies they leave behind.
These debates speak to a growing shift in cultural norms, said Jason Riggle, associate professor of linguistics at University of Chicago. Reassessing names in light of current sentiments isn’t a new phenomenon, but the internet may be speeding up these conversations, he added.
“As a culture, we are struggling to determine what it means to be a member of society and accepted,” said Riggle, who taught a linguistics class on microaggression. “That’s the hottest part of our current cultural war. The motivation of name changes will have to do with those topics.”
Often, it’s not a simple decision. Names offer a snapshot into the past for better or worse, and it’s up to society to determine what’s acceptable today. Removing a name erases part of history, while also promoting a new cultural norm, Riggle explained.
Still, it’s an important discussion to have, said Michael Green, associate professor of history at University of Nevada-Las Vegas. “It’s always good as a society to reevaluate society and our past,” said Green, who testified for renaming McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas.
From an airport named after an anti-Semite to a park named for the President, here are five places where names have recently come under fire—with varying degrees of success:
McCarran International Airport, Las Vegas
Namesake: Sen. Pat McCarran, D-Nevada, 1876-1954
The Controversy: The long-serving Democratic senator’s legacy has drawn more scrutiny in recent years. While he served four terms, helped pass aircraft safety regulations and was regarded as one of the most powerful senators in Washington, his story has an unpleasant underbelly. McCarran was not only anti-Semitic, but acted on it, according to Green. He was responsible for an immigration act to keep out displaced persons from Eastern Europe after World War II, and allegedly voted against the appointment of Jewish judges. Former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid raised issue over the airport’s name in 2012, and this year, state Sen. Tick Segerblom proposed a bill to rename it in Reid’s honor, which would cost the state as much as $2 million. However, the bill never saw a vote, and McCarran’s name is still the first thing millions of tourists see when they arrive in Southern Nevada.
Calhoun College residential facility, Yale University
Namesake: Yale Alumnus and former Vice President John C. Calhoun, 1782-1850
Controversy: Debate over renaming Calhoun College has simmered for years, but it reached a boiling point in 2015. That year, a white man who revered the Confederacy shot nine black worshippers at a church in Charleston, South Carolina. That led to a series of student-protests at Yale University and a renewed push to remove Calhoun’s name from the school. Calhoun, who was from South Carolina, was a national leader and ardent supporter of slavery up until his death in 1850. His name represented white supremacy and didn’t belong on a Yale building, protesters argued. Yale’s president, Peter Salovey, initially refused to change the name, citing concerns over white-washing the campus’ history, but eventually changed his mind in February 2017. The facility is now named after Grace Murray Hopper, who graduated from Yale with a Ph.D, in 1934 and was considered a trailblazing computer scientist.
Balbo Drive, Millennium Park, Chicago
Namesake: Italo Balbo, Italian Marshal of the Air Force, 1896-1949
Controversy: In 1933, Italian airman Italo Balbo completed an unprecedented transatlantic flight from Italy to Chicago with 25 airplanes in formation to mark the city’s Century of Progress. The feat so-impressed Chicago’s mayor that a three-block street in its famous Millennium Park was named after him. After decades of seeming anonymity as a street name, Balbo returned to public prominence in 2011, but this time for different reasons. Balbo was also a military leader who fought for Italian dictator Benito Mussolini to help the Fascist Party come to power in World War II. For some, the street is a symbol of that past. For others, the road simply honors a specific achievement and supports Italian heritage in the city. The argument spawned dueling petitions and editorials in the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times. The street name, however, was never changed.
Justin Herman Plaza, San Francisco
Namesake: M. Justin Herman, San Francisco city planner, head of San Francisco Redevelopment Agency, died 1971
Controversy: This family-friendly plaza in San Francisco’s tourist-laden Embarcadero district has garnered a lot of attention for its namesake. While Justin Herman served as an influential city planner for San Francisco, petitions to change the name of the plaza have raised important questions about his past. Herman, they note, was responsible for razing the city’s Fillmore district and displacing thousands of black families. After campaigns in 2001 and 2015 failed to remove his name, a new petition is now about 800 signatures shy of its goal of 12,000. Suggested new names for the plaza include famous San Francisco poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou or photographer David Johnson, who chronicled Fillmore’s black community in the 1940s and 1950s.
Donald J. Trump State Park, Yorktown, New York
Namesake: President Donald J. Trump
Controversy: While Trump’s legacy is far from settled, his actions both as a businessman and politician have prompted petitions to remove his name from the titular state park in New York’s Westchester and Putnam counties. Trump donated the land to the state in 2006, after his plans for a golf course failed to come to fruition. A petition in 2015 cited his divisive campaign rhetoric as a reason to rename the park. Democratic state Sen. Daniel L. Squadron wrote a letter to Governor Andrew Cuomo arguing for the name change, but it didn’t happen. Another petition to rename the park after New York folk singer Pete Seeger has garnered 12,500 signatures.