An NC neighborhood’s vote over its racist namesake can’t end there

·4 min read

A Raleigh listserv got heated recently as Cameron Park residents debated and ultimately began voting on whether or not they would rename and distance themselves from the Cameron family, who at one point owned more than 900 enslaved people to tend to more than 30,000 acres of land.

Neighbors began discussing the possibility of a name change earlier this year, when the Village District changed its name. It’s one of the latest iterations of a recent renaming movement that sped up in 2020 after the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor sparked Black Lives Matter protests across the country.

While the vote isn’t final yet, it seems there are equal opinions for, against, and neutral to a change. Well-known Cameron Park residents, like N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper and Attorney General Josh Stein, haven’t made public statements on their feelings toward the name change.

If the Cameron Park neighbors do ultimately rename their community, it won’t change the fact that their census tract is more than 83 percent white and about 3.5 percent Black. It won’t do much of anything, in terms of tangible change.

It doesn’t mean it isn’t important; it just means it can’t be the only step taken.

Living in a state where tobacco dominated the economy meant that wealthy landowners with vast plantations held the power, and picked the names. There are countless buildings, streets, communities, and more across North Carolina named for slave owners and professional racists: Carrboro, Fort Bragg, and Vance County are a few that come to mind.

Myrick Howard, a 45-year Cameron Park resident and president of Preservation North Carolina, told the News & Observer that the neighborhood wasn’t named in honor of the Cameron family. Instead, he said, it was named because that’s what the land has always been referred to as.

With respect to Howard and the years of work he’s put into preserving the state, this isn’t entirely true: before settlers colonized the states, they were indigenous lands inhabited by at least eight state-recognized tribes and more that have not been able to secure that approval. The zip code associated with Cameron Park is on Skaruhreh/Tuscarora and Lumbee lands, according to Canadian non-profit Native Land Digital. Other primary documents from settlers conclude that what we know as Wake County was once an in-between area surrounded by Tuscarora, Catawba, and Siouan tribes.

Names of places change, and people can adapt. I attended UNC-Chapel Hill the year after Carolina Hall was renamed so that it would no longer honor a Ku Klux Klan leader. In the post-Civil Rights era, more than 1,000 streets were renamed in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. There were slip-ups and blank stares at first, but you get used to it. It’s tricky, but then it’s not.

It is, however, symbolic.

Howard also pointed out that the name change “is not moving forward the issue of dealing with racism in North Carolina and Raleigh.” He’s right: renaming buildings at UNC-Chapel Hill hasn’t meant the university has done better by its students of color, and removing Confederate monuments hasn’t kept the Confederacy from haunting North Carolina through racist policy.

Howard says he suggested the families create scholarships based on their property assessments to go to students at HBCUs, but didn’t get a response. It’s adjacent to arguments for reparations, but still requires proof folks “deserve” the money.

Since some of Cameron’s slave records are available at Historic Stagville and lineages are being traced, the neighborhood could even consider giving money directly to the descendants of the enslaved people who once lived there. They could give money to the tribes that used to be there. It could also be a moment for Cooper, Stein, and other local government officials to rally folks behind larger changes to promote equity and justice in the state.

Our state and our country are still reckoning with the legacy of white supremacy because we refuse to acknowledge that we’re still idolizing white supremacists. It may not be a radical act, but changing names and dedications is the beginning of acknowledging the human atrocities that took place on that piece of land. It’s a way of stepping toward change. It’s a start.