On August 2, Cambridge City Council unanimously approved the renaming of the Agassiz neighborhood north of Harvard in honor of Maria L. Baldwin, the Northeast’s first principal black woman.
In February 2020, city council approved the renaming of the neighborhood, which previously commemorated Louis Agassiz, a 19th-century Harvard professor and supporter of scientific racism.
The origin of the name change dates back to Maya E. Counter ’24, who was a high school student when she first proposed a change almost two years ago after researching the name Agassiz for her history class. of the United States AP.
Cambridge Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui and Councilor Denise E. Simmons – who co-sponsored the 2020 ordinance to begin the ward renaming process as well as the August 2 ordinance that got Baldwin’s name – both congratulated Counter for his role.
âThis name change reinforces the city’s common goals of better understanding, learning from and engaging with our history,â Siddiqui wrote in an emailed statement. “I am so proud of Ms. Counter and her advocacy efforts around this name change.”
Simmons also praised Counter’s efforts, writing in an email that the neighborhood renaming process has been “organic” and something she strongly supports.
âI just want to praise the effort and initiative shown by Maya Counter, a young woman in our community who has been actively engaged in the history of our community and asked the critical questions around who we choose to raise. in our local historical narrative, how have these people been portrayed, and who might not be as prominent in our history as they deserve? Simmons wrote.
Counter, who lives in the neighborhood, said the change was a relief to her and represented a shift from Agassiz’s racist legacy and an adoption of what Baldwin stood for.
âHer dedication and passion for creating safe and engaging spaces for students, despite all the odds against her and other black women, due to her gender and race, doesn’t just speak of the type of a legacy that the Cambridge community should honor. , but the kind of legacy that should replace former white supremacists across the country, âCounter said.
Counter said it’s important to note that Maria Baldwin was born during Louis Agassiz’s lifetime.
âIt’s just important to know that his time is not late after Agassiz’s. For the people who say he was a product of his time, you know, so was she, “Counter said. “So I think it’s really important to choose the right kind of story to represent our present.”
The New Baldwin Quarter is home to much of the Harvard campus, including Harvard Law School, Harvard Divinity School, and the Museum of Natural History.
The name Agassiz is still present on several university buildings, chairs and museums on campus. However, some Harvard staff and professors have argued in the past that the name honors Agassiz’s wife and son, not Agassiz himself.
The university’s ties to Agassiz have also come under scrutiny after Tamara K. Lanier filed a lawsuit against Harvard in March 2019, claiming the rights to the Zealy daguerreotypes. The objects in question are several photographs of slaves and were commissioned by Louis Agassiz to support his arguments of scientific racism. According to Lanier, the people in the photos, Renty and Delia, are his ancestors.
Lanier said Harvard can learn from Cambridge’s decision to remove the name Agassiz from the city.
âHarvard just has to get on board, get on the bandwagon and say, ‘You know what, we’re not going to keep celebrating and commemorating a racist,’â Lanier said. “It’s not difficult.”
“When we have a historical figure whose name conjures up those kind of dark chapters in our history, it is our responsibility, firstly, not only to reprimand that person, but also, wherever we see the name of Louis Agassiz, we have to make sure the community understands who they are commemorating, âshe added.
In October 2020, University President Lawrence S. Bacow announced the creation of a university-wide committee chaired by former University President Drew G. Faust to create guidelines. to rename campus buildings, chairs, spaces and associated programs to “historical figures whose advocacy or support of activities would today be deemed odious by members of the Harvard community.”
Counter said she is urging the University to think about how a name like Agassiz’s might make black students feel.
âI would say at Harvard, think about what that makes for your black students,â Counter said. âThink how it feels to walk around campus and see building names that evoke a white supremacist. “
Harvard spokesman Jason A. Newton declined to comment.
Counter said she was relieved by the name change, but said there was still a long way to go in Cambridge, saying finding out about Agassiz’s legacy had made her wonder whose streets carry the name. name and their heritage.
âI really feel like I can finally breathe out,â Counter said. âBut at the same time, it’s only one thing. There is so much more to do.
– Editor Raquel Coronell Uribe can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @ raquelco15.