OAKLAND (KPIX) — First, it was the statues. Now, some people in Oakland want to change street names. They say many of the downtown Oakland streets are named after people who owned slaves.
“All references to slavery should be abolished,” said Oakland resident Herman Cowan, who supports name changes.
On a drive around downtown, one can see many names of former presidents and famous historical figures on street signs. Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, Franklin, Madison, Webster, Clay — the list goes on. Some community activists point out many of these people were slave owners.They say those names represent oppression.
“I think the names and the symbols help perpetrate the mindset of racism and superiority,” Cowan said.
Supporters want to change, for example, Jackson Street — named after President Andrew Jackson — to Black Lives Matter Street.
“I fully support a re-examination and a robust community conversation about all of the names that we honor by placing them on our structures and on our streets, especially our public structures and streets.” said Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf.
Both Mayor Schaaf and councilman Larry Reid said they’re open to changing the street names if the community supports it.
“That’s a sign of government approval and, if that is not what the government should be saying at this moment, we need to change it,” the mayor said.
“If in fact they are named after, you know, former presidents who were slave owners, I will do an ordinance to change those street names,” said councilman Reid. “African Americans had worked hard to build this country to where it is now. So for those who said it’s part of history, yes, it’s a part of the bad history and it needs to be in the past and we need to be moving forward.”
Many Oakland residents wonder where and when will this removing of names, statues and images end. They ask “what about the pictures printed on U.S. money and what about people named Jackson or Jefferson? Should people change their names if those names are linked to people who owned slaves?” Opponents of widespread name changes say people should instead focus on real change.
“(Georg Washington) is the first president. I think his name should be up there (on the street sign),” said Reginald Ray-Savage, a Black artist who lives in Oakland. He called the name change issue “petty” and worried it could distract from the fight for racial equality.
“We have to pump the brakes a little bit and very coolly think about this so we don’t just make this into a monster,” Ray-Savage said.
Some African American leaders say taking down the street names won’t take down racist mindsets.
“I’m not in support,” said Bishop Bob Jackson with Acts Full Gospel Church which boasts about 6.000 members. “It’s a dog-and-pony show as far as I am concerned — it’s not going to do anything to affect change!”
The bishop pointed out his last name is Jackson. He said the name was likely given to his ancestors by slave owners when they were removed from Africa and shipped to the U.S. He and others posed a rhetorical question: should all African Americans change their last names? He said that’s nonsense. He would prefer the city and people shift money and efforts to community programs that will benefit Black, Brown, and Indigenous people.
On Friday, Bishop Jackson and the city celebrated a new grant that will allow his church to build 55 units of affordable housing in east Oakland. This is Acts Full Gospel Church’s second housing project. A few years ago, the church partnered with the city of Oakland and other agencies to build a large, affordable-housing complex with about 60 units on International Boulevard. Bishop Jackson said that’s the kind of change that will benefit families in his community.
“You can change the names (of streets). You can (take down) the statues. You can take all of that stuff down — that’s not going to change the minds and hearts of people. As long as you’re not changing the hearts, hatred and racism is still there,” Bishop Jackson said. “(Changing street names is) not gonna take away racism. That’s not gonna take away the hatred that’s in men and women. We need a heart transplant. We need a heart change!”
At this time, the city has no plans to appoint staff to study the name change issue or how much it would cost. If there’s enough community support or pressure, that could change.