The day of Louis R. Agassiz’s funeral, every flag in Boston flew at half-mast; every local newspaper was trimmed in black. Agassiz, a professor of zoology and geology at Harvard, had spent his years dredging up and documenting marine species across the Atlantic, popularizing the theory of ice ages, and founding Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology. Delivering the service that evening, Reverend A.P. Peabody encouraged the crowd to “follow, though with unequal steps, where [Agassiz] led.” “In the whole scientific culture of our land his spirit will still live and work,” the Harvard chaplain declared. Within two years, Agassiz’s hometown established a school in his honor; soon enough, the neighborhood took up the name too.
Nearly 150 years later, the residents of Agassiz find little to revere about their namesake. Some even want a new one.
At a 2001 lecture by the late Harvard zoologist Stephen J. Gould, many were surprised to learn that Louis Agassiz created taxonomies not only of turtles and jellyfish but also of human beings: Rejecting the modern consensus around Darwinian evolution, he believed that God created each race as a separate species within a hierarchy.
“I thought, well, why is the neighborhood named after a racist?,” says Jill M. Delbanco, who moved to Agassiz with her husband, Thomas L. Delbanco ’61, in 2007.
Maya H. Counter, a senior at Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School, felt similarly. Reading about Agassiz for a junior year U.S. History project “greatly disturbed” her, she says, andit “inspired [her]” to raise the matter with Sumbul Siddiqui, who was then a Cambridge City Counselor and is now Mayor.
“The past doesn’t necessarily deserve glorified representation,” Counter explains. “Agassiz was a flawed person, and I don’t think his legacy should be represented in the community.”
Counter has proposed renaming the neighborhood after Maria L. Baldwin, an unflagging civil rights activist.
Fifteen years earlier, a ninth grader at the Agassiz School led a successful push to rename his school after Baldwin, a well-loved former headmistress. Baldwin’s tenure marked the first of any African-American in a non-segregated school in New England.
Joel B. Bard, a parent involved in the effort, says that after their initial victory, many people briefly discussed the possibility of renaming the neighborhood but ultimately thought, “Well, one step at a time.”
Phoebe N. Sinclair, Community Liaison of the Agassiz Neighborhood Council, agreed. “I think people simply burnt out,” she says. ‘That’s why it’s important that there’s a natural changeover in the neighborhood; now new people can get invested.”
But it is unclear how the broader Agassiz population feels about the Agassiz name. After the vote to rename the Agassiz School, then-mayor Michael A. Sullivan refused to denounce the scientist: “We were [not] taking someone else’s name off so much as changing the name,” he told the Crimson in 2002. Even the new Maria L. Baldwin School website makes no mention of Agassiz’s views on race; it speaks of “carry[ing] the Baldwin-Agassiz tradition on into the next century.”
Counter maintains that a hyphenated name “sends a dangerous message.” “Why associate Baldwin with a man who used his career to say [people like] her were biologically inferior?” she asks.
She remains hopeful that a name change might come before she even graduates. At Siddiqui’s encouragement, Counter surveyed her neighbors’ opinions on the social networking site, Nextdoor, where around 130 people expressed interest in a change, and enlisted Sinclair to organize and facilitate an ANC meeting on the subject. According to Sinclair, Siddiqui seemed to be doing her best to “support a high schooler in an effort” she found “brave and important.”
Around 20 community members, many of whom were long-time residents, attended the Jan. 14 ANC meeting where Counter spoke — a healthy turnout for conversations like these, Sinclair tells me. The group loosely supported renaming the neighborhood, but felt strongly that a change should only come with broader support.
“I didn’t get the sense that people were fighting to keep Agassiz’s name, nor did I get a sense they were fighting to change it — they were curious,” Sinclair says.
Frederick R. Meyer, a volunteer moderator at the meeting, maintains that people opposed to the change were likely “too afraid” to voice their opinions. An avid amateur historian, he worries that young people are uninterested in consuming or preserving history. In 2002, he told the Crimson he’d rather the Agassiz School adopt a hyphenated name or the city dedicate a park to Baldwin instead.
Thomas L. Delbanco, a Harvard Medical School professor who attended the meeting, understands Meyer’s perspective — to an extent. “You cannot revise history every five years because you don’t like something,” he says. However, he believes a town’s name represents its people; therefore, it is a sign of progress, not of erasure, to change it. He imagines that the Agassiz name “turns off” prospective newcomers of color from moving to the neighborhood. “Why make a point of celebrating someone who had such thoughts?” he says.
Although Delbanco makes a forceful case for renaming the town, he interjects to affirm Agassiz’s reputation as a “great scientist.” He, like many of his neighbors, treats Agassiz’s legacy like a balancing act. After all, they insist, Louis was not the only Agassiz. His wife, Elizabeth C. Agassiz, served as the co-founder and first president of Radcliffe College. His son, Alexander E. R. Agassiz, succeeded him as Director of the Museum of Comparative Zoology, driving its twice-fold expansion. Harvard affiliates claim that the Agassiz name linked to the museum only honors Alexander.
Controversy surrounding Louis Agassiz’s time at Harvard spills beyond the walls of the MCZ. Last year, Tamara K. Lanier sued Harvard to gain the rights to photographs of her alleged enslaved ancestors — daguerreotypes Agassiz commissioned to advance his theories of racial inferiority. Sinclair believes that the lawsuit, in conjunction with a “greater consciousness around race,” has contributed momentum to the push to rename Agassiz.
On Monday, Feb. 12, the Cambridge City Council passed a resolution to begin an informal name-changing process. Leading the project is Councilor E. Denise Simmons, who has sponsored legislation to consider renaming schools, streets and monuments named after people linked to the slave trade, or “other similarly shameful acts.” In 2015, she facilitated a name change in The Port, a Boston neighborhood once known by its police district number, Area IV.
“The clinical designation of ‘Area IV’ always felt like an othering of the area for too many of us. It was a happy moment for me to become involved in the effort to officially rename the neighborhood, something brought about by the neighbors,” she explains.
This vote paves the way for significantly larger neighborhood meetings on the topic, potential educational series on the central figures Agassiz and Baldwin, and future polls. At the moment, things remain in flux. “The only thing we’re definitely doing,” Sinclair says, “is communicating back to the city.”
Ultimately, the council must approve all name changes, though both Meyer and Bard, a municipal lawyer, believe its members will follow the will of the neighborhood.
In an email to the council, Meyer stressed that the 30 people at the Jan. 14 meeting “should not claim to be speaking for the neighborhood.” He asked the council to help the ANC survey the neighborhood for alternate names and contact adult residents for their ranked choices. “It seems to me the only way to achieve [sic] harmonious neighborhood-wide consensus,” he declares.
While some mentioned naming the town after its geographic region or one of its famed residents, everyone interviewed for the article told me they expected the neighborhood to soon rally behind the change to Baldwin or Agassiz-Baldwin.
“It just feels the most natural,” Delbanco says.
— Magazine writer Saima S. Iqbal can be reached at email@example.com