A Street Named For Abolitionists

The city of Cambridge is planning to rename two streets near Cambridge Crossing, located in East Cambridge, after two prominent female African American activists with ties to the city.

Cambridge Crossing, a new neighborhood development, is still in various states of construction. The buildings are mostly colorless: gray concrete walls and pathways, plate glass windows. On this cloudy afternoon, it's hard to tell where land meets sky.

Beneath the ordinary surface, though, change is underway. The city of Cambridge is planning to rename two streets near Cambridge Crossing, located in East Cambridge, after two prominent female African American activists with ties to the city.

North Point Boulevard will become Morgan Avenue after Gertrude Wright Morgan, an activist involved in the Niagara Movement and the establishment of the NAACP, and North Street will be Jacobs Street after Harriet Jacobs, a freed slave and prominent writer. In the wake of the Civil War, Jacobs helped orphaned black children in the South find homes in Boston.

Divco West, the real estate developer behind Cambridge Crossing, initiated the renaming. Cambridge Vice Mayor Jan A. Devereux reports that the previous residential complex was known as North Point, adding that, “since it’s no longer called North Point, I think [the developers] realized that probably something called North Point Boulevard was no longer on brand.”

To find new street names with more meaning, the developers approached the Cambridge Historical Commission and Department of Public Works to find prominent women of color candidates. The staffs selected the two winners: Morgan and Harris.

“We had a little ceremony with Cambridge's Historical Commission and the Department of Public Works and representatives from Divco West came,” says Devereux.

There was no such celebration on the streets themselves, however, and Cambridge Crossing residents seem unaware of the renaming and its significance. We ask around twenty pedestrians on the two streets if they know about the renaming. Only one does, and only because he happens to follow Cambridge Crossing on Twitter.

People spill out of a bus near a tidy, little park — the only green space in the area — and file into identical apartment buildings. “I didn’t know they were doing that,” says one passerby rushing home.

“I haven't seen any big announcements saying like, ‘Hey, we're unveiling this street’,” adds another. “I don't recall seeing anything else like, ‘These are the names we went through and this is why we decided what we decided’; it was kind of just like, 'Oh, yeah, cool, they're changing the name.’”

Though the impetus for this particular change came from the developer, Devereux says it reflects broader efforts by Cambridge city government to celebrate women. Recently, Cambridge has begun the plans for a $300,000 public art project to commemorate the 100 years since the 19th Amendment went into effect.

“Much of the traditional statues around the city are [of] men, and if you look at most of the artwork in City Hall it’s mostly [of] men,” remarks Devereaux.

Renaming streets — including Child Street, after Julia, and Earhart Street, after Amelia — though seemingly insignificant to the residents and passersby, is just a hint of the grander plan to help Cambridge more visibly reflect the powerful women of history with ties to the city.

Devereaux hopes to create something like an augmented reality map explaining the historically significant street names and other monuments around the city.

“I think that would be a nice complement so that there's a greater awareness that these streets exist,” she says.

But whether this initiative will be successful will likely depend on the city’s ability to publicize their efforts — and around Cambridge Crossing, at the moment, few seem to know or care.