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The Cambridge City Council voted Monday to begin the process of renaming the city’s Agassiz neighborhood, named for 19th-century Harvard professor and proponent of scientific racism Louis Agassiz.
Agassiz neighborhood resident and Cambridge Rindge and Latin School senior Maya Counter put forth the motion at Monday’s City Council meeting, during which the Council passed it unanimously.
In her statement before the Council, Counter argued in favor of scrapping Agassiz’s name from the neighborhood, citing his scientific work that has informed white supremacist ideology.
“His views helped public policy and helped lawmakers support the continued oppression of black Americans, and I believe it is past time we recognize Agassiz’s legacy for what it was and that we no longer carry his name with the neighborhood,” she said.
The Council’s vote comes as part of a wider initiative examining Cambridge’s ties to slavery. In April 2019, the Council approved a policy order to compile a list of streets, schools, and public buildings named after people associated with the slave trade.
Monday’s meeting did not mark the first time Cambridge’s ties to Agassiz have come under scrutiny.
Tamara K. Lanier filed a lawsuit against Harvard in March 2019 claiming the rights to historic photographs allegedly commissioned by Agassiz — and currently owned by the University — that depict enslaved people who Lanier says are her ancestors. Agassiz used the photos as evidence to support his scientific argument for a theory of white superiority.
A group representing 43 descendants of Agassiz penned a letter to University President Lawrence S. Bacow in June imploring him to turn over the photos to Lanier. The lawsuit remains pending.
Councilor E. Denise Simmons, who co-sponsored Monday’s policy order to rename the Agassiz neighborhood, applauded Counter for her efforts at the meeting.
“There’s so much more that we need to do to make these important corrections, because we do not want ourselves or our children or our grandchildren walking through the streets of someone so heinous and so disrespectful, for lack of a better way of putting it,” Simmons said.
Councilor Patricia M. Nolan ’80 said Cambridge should account for its own history as elected officials throughout the country reckon with their cities’ complicated pasts.
“We often think when we talk, for instance, about confederate monuments that we don’t have a similar thing right here in Cambridge,” she said. “So it’s really important that we’re doing exactly this, which is addressing our own history in a positive way.”
The Council will now move forward with a formal process to rename the neighborhood.
At Monday’s meeting, Counter suggested renaming the neighborhood after Maria L. Baldwin, the first African American school principal in New England.
At Harvard, campus buildings, museums, and named professorships still bear the Agassiz name. Harvard faculty and staff, however, maintain that those titles pay homage to the contributions of his wife and son and not the scientist himself.
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