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Council approves two honorary street names after heated discussion

After heated debate over its policy for honorary street names, Charlottesville’s City Council has approved a handful of proposals while continuing to mull others.

The council approved two proposals at its virtual meeting this past week.

Honorary street names do not change the name of the street. Rather, brown signs with the honorary designation are placed near signs with the actual street name.

The council unanimously approved a recognition of the Rev. C.H. Brown on 12th Street Northwest from Grady Avenue to its dead end.

The Rev. Ralph E. Brown Sr. submitted the application to honor his late father. Brown said that his father built the Holy Temple Church of God in Christ, which is on 12th Street Northwest, in 1947. His father also purchased land behind the church and built several homes on that block that became a minority-owned neighborhood.

The council voted 4-1 to designate Market Street between First Street Northeast and Ninth Street Northeast as Black Lives Matter Boulevard. Councilor Lloyd Snook cast the dissenting vote, saying he felt the proposal didn’t fit the city honorary naming policy.

“We cannot afford to miss the magnitude of this moment in time,” Don Gathers, who submitted the proposal, said during public comment.

The policy requires a designation focused on people or events “that have made an important and lasting contribution” to the city or represent a key part of its history.

Mayor Nikuyah Walker said that although she was voting in favor of the proposal, it wasn’t her preference because she supports designations for people who contributed to local history.

“I would like when people see those signs to be able to Google that person and see what kind of contribution that person had to the community,” she said.

The votes came at the end of a long discussion about the policy in general and several of the applications.

Councilors had a variety of issues with the existing policy. Snook said he’s “not a fan” of honorary designations in general, while Councilor Sena Magill had logistical concerns about how often the council considers proposals and how the signs fit on poles.

Magill also said the city likely needs to reexamine all of its street names and naming process.

Snook said the entire discussion should be delayed because some of the proposals were overlapping, there were outstanding questions about the policy and the agenda item was starting after 11:30 p.m. The council previously has established a guideline to end its meetings by 11 p.m. and, if it would be longer, then the council would approve a motion to extend the meeting. No such motion or vote occurred on Tuesday.

“I just think there’s a whole lot of thinking we need to do as a council about how we’re going to deal with honorary street names, actual street names … that, combined with the fact that it’s 11:37 p.m., I’m really not up for having an extended discussion about it now,” Snook said.

Walker argued that the council had set the expectation that the proposals would be discussed at the meeting.

Last month, the council voted to suspend its honorary street naming policy and accept proposals through Aug. 31. At the time, councilors had been considering an honorary street name downtown to recognize the Black Lives Matter movement.

Afterward, the city received 13 applications, and the remaining 11 applications will be decided upon at another time.

Two proposals were for University of Virginia men’s basketball coach Tony Bennett. Walker said that, given the national climate around race and police brutality, those wouldn’t be appropriate. At least two other applications were short on information.

The biggest contention was between Walker and Snook around Albemarle County Commonwealth’s Attorney Jim Hingeley’s proposal to name Second Street Northeast between East High and East Main streets in honor of Gregory Swanson.

Swanson was an African American attorney and subject of a key federal court decision on civil rights, Hingeley wrote in his proposal.

Swanson applied to UVa’s law school in 1949 and, although the faculty unanimously voted to admit him, the Board of Visitors rejected his application because he was Black.

The U.S. District Court ruled on Sept. 5, 1950, that UVa violated the 14th Amendment in rejecting Swanson’s application and ordered the school to admit him. Hingeley wrote that Swanson was the first African American admitted to an all-white college or university in the former Confederacy.

The federal courtroom where the case was argued was in the downtown library across Second Street from Market Street Park. Hingeley and Michael Caplin spoke in support of the proposal during the meeting’s public comment period.

Sparks were flying around Snook’s comments about historical context and Walker’s stance that Swanson wasn’t from the community and was only connected to UVa.

Snook and Walker were at odds with uplifting Swanson locally as he was not from the area and the role an education at UVa’s law school played in the civil rights era.

“People from the community are still going to say, what about the people whose blood sweat and tears built up this community,” Walker said, adding that Swanson already is honored with a plaque in the library.

Snook said Swanson’s designation would be the easiest for him to support, although there is a conflict because the Second Street Northeast area is already honorarily designated for Preston Coiner. Coiner, a longtime Charlottesville resident who was a local historian and member of the Board of Architectural Review, died in 2012.

Snook discussed the importance of Swanson case in the work of Thurgood Marshall. Marshall, who graduated from Howard University’s law school and was a key figure in the civil right movement, was one of the attorneys who argued Swanson’s case. The ruling was a building block for the Brown v. Board of Education decision, which overturned racial segregation in public schools.

“The one thing that lawyers knew [that] judges knew was that judges understood what law school you went to mattered,” Snook said. “Judges understood then that it was simply not true that Black law schools were separate but equal, and it was certainly not true, and once they acknowledged that for their own profession, that was an important step in what Thurgood Marshall was trying to do to get to the point where he could bring Brown v Board, where he could say to the Supreme Court, ‘listen you have acknowledged in cases like Gregory Swanson that what law school you go to matters and it’s not simply separate but equal.”

Walker took exception with the implication that Black law schools were not as prestigious as white law schools, pointing out that Swanson also would have attended Howard if he hadn’t won his case.

“Some very excellent attorneys came from all-Black institutions. And it wasn’t just simply being able to integrate white institutions because clearly that hasn’t solved all the problems. … It was white people having the most power. … Next time you want to make comments like that you should do your research.”

Snook quickly interjected that, “I have done my research and I will tell you that the research is that —”

Cutting Snook off, Walker then said Marshall graduated from Howard and so Snook shouldn’t say one school was better than the other.

“So, Lloyd, I’m not going to have a discussion with you about what Black people think about all-Black institutions and why integration, they thought it was important at the time,” Walker said.

Snook pointed out that he was only discussing why the case was important.

“What I’m saying is that judges understood UVa to be a better law school — whether it was or not is a different issue,” Snook said. “I’m just explaining why Gregory Swanson was important and why the case was important. The way to appeal to white judges was to get white judges to understand something based on the quality or perceived quality of law schools that they weren’t going to perceive any other way.”

Another issue was the application from Charles Alexander, known in his educational work with children as Mr. Alex-Zan. His proposal came with a petition with dozens of signatures and letters of support from community leaders.

Alexander’s application originally sought to designate Fourth Street Northwest between West Main Street and Preston Avenue as Black History Pathway. It was revised last week to be named Wyatt Johnson Way (Black History Pathway).

Fourth Street Northwest is adjacent to the Jefferson School in the former Vinegar Hill neighborhood, a predominately African American area the city razed in the 1960s.

Alexander wrote that Johnson’s house was the last one to be destroyed in the razing. Johnson was later involved in several community organizations and was part of the push to have the Jefferson School become an African American heritage center.

The discussion focused around making sure the people who supported Alexander’s initial proposal were still on board with the revision. There was also some concern about how much text could fit on the honorary sign, while Snook floated the idea of a permanent street name of Black History Pathway.


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