“For years and years our streets were named just as to-day [sic]. It hasn’t yet killed any one [sic] living on such streets. I am more patriotic than you.” These words sound familiar, like they might be from someone who opposes Washington, D.C.’s renaming a section of 16th Street NW to Black Lives Matter Plaza. But it comes from a postcard sent to Cincinnati, Ohio Councilman A. I. Murdock in March 1918 in response to his efforts to rename all of Cincinnati’s streets bearing a German name. On April 9, 1918, Cincinnati City Council unanimously approved this change in what they considered a show of patriotism and support for the war effort against Germany.

During the past month of protests against racism and police brutality, one frequent target of protesters across the nation has been monuments to Confederate leaders and others who oppressed Black people. Going so far as to pull down some statues, the protesters have been met with fierce backlash from many conservative leaders. The result is an ongoing national debate about who deserves to be honored in public spaces while monuments continue to be removed and the phrase “Black Lives Matter” is emblazoned across cities in the form of murals, street names, and, of course, protest signs.

Just over a hundred years apart, Americans are having similar conversations about the physical reality of the places we live in. From street names to statues, while the two cases are contextually and fundamentally different, the same question arises of who and what our society chooses to honor and of the significance these public, physical forms hold.

Statues and Names Removed

In the past month, one figure with a particular connection to the state of Ohio has been a target of protesters across the nation: Christopher Columbus. Ohio’s capital city, named in his honor, has had to examine the legacy of the eponymous explorer, recently working towards the removal of three outdoor statues of Columbus.

On June 16, Columbus State Community College pledged to remove the Columbus statue from its campus within two weeks, describing the decision as “a symbolic gesture of our commitment to our College and in our community to continue and accelerate the fight against systemic racism.”Two days later, Columbus Mayor Andrew J. Ginther announced that the statue to the south of City Hall would be removed and put into storage as soon as possible. Citing similar reasons behind the decision, Ginther said, “For many people in our community, the statue represents patriarchy, oppression and divisiveness. That does not represent our great city, and we will no longer live in the shadow of our ugly past.”

The fate of the Columbus statue at the statehouse—the oldest of the city’s three Columbus statues, dating back to 1892 and the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s voyage—is still to be determined by the Capitol Square Review and Advisory Board. Two members of the board, Ohio Rep. Janine Boyd and Ohio Sen. Hearcel Craig, believe that a clean sweep of the controversial Italian explorer is needed.

Meanwhile, members of the Columbus Piave Club, which promotes Italian heritage and culture, hold a different view of the statues’ cultural significance. In a statement regarding the removal of the City Hall statue, they “find particular offense in the Mayor’s […] unintelligible, insulting, and incendiary rhetoric from his press release.”

As leaders and residents alike begin to examine a more multifaceted history of Columbus—one that positions his acheivements against the colonialism, racism and indigenous genocide of his voyages—his statues are no longer simply for public admiration. Once seen primarily as celebrations of Italian heritage and achievements, the Columbus statues are now also seen as symbols of past and continuing oppression.

But it’s not just historical figures like Columbus that are being called into question. In Cincinnati, supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement have targeted Marge Schott, late owner of the Cincinnati Reds, for the racist comments she made only a couple decades ago. In response to petitions, both the University of Cincinnati and Saint Ursula Academy have removed Schott’s name from campus facilities, citing Schott’s record as going against their institutional values of inclusion and equity.

A Debate on German Street Names, 100 Years Ago

Just over a hundred years ago, Cincinnati Council Members rallied to remove German names from the city. Recently, however, Cincinnati has had a change of heart and reversed some of these changes in September 2017. In a tweet promoting the announcement of this change, Cincinnati City Council President Chris Seelbach attributed the original removal of the German street names to anti-German hysteria. In a further sign of Cincinnati’s change of heart with regard to its German heritage, the city now hosts the largest Oktoberfest in the United States.

Headlines from the April 9, 1918 edition of the Cincinnati Enquirer. Image courtesy of ProQuest Historical Newspapers.

In 1918, however, Cincinnati City Council and the public involved framed their efforts to rename German streets with a conversation about the values they wanted their city to espouse. According to the Cincinnati Enquirer, the various hearings held on the issue were filled with passionate speeches about patriotism and American ideals like democracy.

At an April 3, 1918 hearing of the Council Committee on Street Naming, attorney Edward Colston said, “It is a disgrace to Cincinnati to permit German names to continue to flourish on signposts while its boys are sacrificing themselves in the crusade against Prussianism over there.” Arguing that the patriotic thing to do would be to immediately change the street names, Colston said, “The City of Cincinnati ought not to favor the bloody Kaiser by decorating its streets with names like Berlin and Bremen.” 

The values-focused rhetoric continued with Councilman Charles O. Rose who said that Cincinnati’s citizens of German descent “understand the necessity for obliterating German propaganda.” Rose went on to say that “[t]hey or their forefathers left Germany to escape the very things that Germany, through this world war, would impose upon us.” He then praised them for choosing freedom, democracy and peace in leaving Germany for “free America.”

According to the Enquirer, “[t]here was no response” when the public in attendance was asked if anybody wanted to argue against the renaming of German streets. 

A century ago Cincinnati City Council viewed the name changes as patriotic. Now, the City Council president views them as hysterical. The difference between these perspectives doesn’t seem to stem from anything inherent to the street names themselves. Rather, it seems to stem from a difference in values: war-inspired, anti-German sentiments versus an appreciation for and celebration of the city’s German heritage.

Place Perpetuating Values

All of these instances of the public reshaping the surrounding physical environment—whether through street names, place names, statues or other monuments—point to the idea that places and their physical characteristics have the ability to create narratives and to either reaffirm a person’s values or push people to reassess their values. 

Sociologist Thomas Gieryn has researched these ideas since the mid 1990s, connecting “the issue of place with the issue of knowledge” through “the idea that place has a lot to do with the ideas or the beliefs or the claims that people accept as true,” as he explained in an interview.

Gieryn delves into this connection between place and knowledge in his book Truth-Spots: How Places Make People Believe, and, in an interview, defined truth-spots as “places that are either built or found that reinforce what people consider to be true.” In other words, truths-spots anchor beliefs to a physical spot, often preserving the memory of a person, their ideas and their values in a form that lasts a long time—for example, a monument. Thus, in today’s debate over Confederate monuments, the public is confronting not just the figures or images of leaders with troubled histories, but also the beliefs anchored to them—beliefs such as white supremacy and support for slavery.

“The monuments and memorials we build are designed to put in a place a narrative—an interpretation—full of values and judgments and meanings. By putting them in a place, you do two things. One is [to] freeze time by putting it in bronze or casted in plaster or stone or whatever. It’s going to stay there. You’ve also created a site—a memorial or a commemorative site,” Gieryn said.

Many Confederate monuments were built not immediately after the war but many decades later. As such, they are rooted in a period of American history during which the narrative of the Lost Cause found widespread support, even from President Woodrow Wilson. The Lost Cause sought to recast Confederates as commendable fighters for their heritage—a heritage that included the oppression of Black people.

These Confederate monuments were “purpose-built” with a mission to perpetuate the values of the Confederacy well into the future and with the knowledge that they would “outlast” the people involved with the Confederacy, Gieryn said. Today, they “reinforce at minimum the significance” of the people being honored.

“If you can go to a place that says to you the world is unjust and that’s okay—a commemorative site that seems to honor someone who was opposed to racial justice—you’ve got a gathering point that becomes a flashpoint, that becomes something worthy then of attack in the judgment of the protesters these days,” Gieryn said.

Having established this understanding of the role that place and the physical reality play in shaping the values of our society—particularly in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement—Gieryn noted Confederate monuments were “built to preserve a set of values whose meaning and judgment and evaluation has changed over time so that now we see [them] as archaic and even damaging to the present condition.”

The current debate surrounding monuments is, in a way, a collective experience of reevaluating our society’s values. Those who seek the removal of Confederate monuments, Columbus statues, and all the other physical markers that have been recently targeted, are issuing a challenge beyond removal. They are also pushing the people who find affirmation of their values in these monuments to reassess these often deeply-held values and calling for the physical world around us to reaffirm a different set of values going forward.

Future Places

Place-making and the issue of who is honored in public spaces aren’t solely about examining the existing world. According to Gieryn, “places…can work to bring into being certain kinds of realities.” In other words, the current wave of monument removal isn’t exclusively about the past, but is just as much about the future.

“When we replace a set of monuments with a different set of monuments, when we remove a name from a building and rename it, we are bringing into being a different reality, a different sense of what is true, and therefore what should be valued,” Gieryn said. “[It’s] through the place-making…that we bring about fundamental change.” 

Gieryn acknowledges that altering the physical isn’t the only avenue for change, but he also reminds “that there’s something fundamental about this material world we live in.”

In this sense, removing the physical symbols of racism and oppression from our society is a more literal expression of building a more just world.

The past hundred years have seen spurts of progress following periods of unrest, and yet many of the conversations are recurring—in this case, what a monument, a statue or a place really means for our collective past, present and future. Whether it’s Cincinnati’s German street names or the Black Lives Matter movement’s calls for monument removals, and while the two are different contextually, both of these debates have centered on symbols that some view as standing in the way of the world they want to build. 

Historical similarities, however, also remind us that it should almost be expected that in a moment of great societal change, public symbols won’t be shielded from this transformation. In fact, if there’s a greater lesson to be drawn from seeing the same conversation occur a hundred years apart, perhaps it’s that this conversation won’t be going away anytime soon; a moment like this is an opportunity to decide what values we want to preserve for future generations in the physical world we maintain.

Further Resources:


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here