GM lives on 33rd St. But it was once called Market St. Before that it was called West Lane (and Duck Lane for the part below M St.)
Around the corner from GM is Volta Pl. But that was originally called 4th St. Then it was called Q St. Not until the early 20th century did it get it’s current name. Up the block is Q St., which was originally 5th St. Then R St. It took over the Q name after Volta took its name.
Nearby is Volta Park. It was originally the Presbyterian church’s burial grounds. (There are probably still bodies buried all over the place around here). Eventually it took the name Georgetown Playground before it became Volta Park.
Q St. east of Wisconsin was first Back St. before it was Stoddert St. before it was Q St. Wisconsin Ave., in turn, was called High St. Then for a little while it was called 32nd St. And 32nd St. was called Valley Rd., but above R St. (which was called Road St.) it was called Observatory Place.
Georgetown itself was called Georgetown when it was an independent city. And then for a couple decades it was called West Washington before returning to its old name. Georgetown University always had the Georgetown name, but it used to call itself Georgetown College. George Washington University, however, used to be called Columbian College. (Columbia University in New York was originally called King’s College).
The point is this: names change. Sometimes old names simply get lost to history. Other times the old names are replaced to make a fresh start. That’s the reason most Georgetown street names got changed: to integrate them into Washington City’s street names after the two cities were merged.
And sometimes the old names get dropped because they have bad associations. Parts of Shaw used to be called Hell’s Bottom, for instance. If the old name isn’t desired anymore, it can be changed. Just like 4th St. became Q St. and then Volta Pl. It’s really not that big a deal.
This all seems rather obvious, no?
Well all this came to mind yesterday when GM read about Alexandria’s plans to rename a waterfront park. Until it underwent a massive renovation, the park was called Fitzgerald Square. It was named after Colonel John Fitzgerald, an Irish immigrant who fought alongside George Washington and was an early mayor of the city.
He was also a slave-owner. At the time he was mayor he owned fourteen slaves, including five children. Recently someone apparently complained to the city about the name, and the city decided to take the opportunity of the renovation to change the name. It will be called King Street Park.
As far as justifications to drop an old name, it’s hardly the most compelling. George Washington own far, far more slaves. So did Thomas Jefferson. And Fitzgerald’s accomplishments aren’t particularly tied to his slave ownership or a defense of slavery broadly. He’s not John Calhoun or Jefferson Davis.
But so what? Why does it matter? It’s not a big deal. There’s no constitutional right that every street or park keep its name until the heat death of the universe. The founders of Georgetown thought the main street running north should be called High St. Well, it’s not High St. anymore, and nobody cares. We’re under zero obligation to respect the dead hand of our forefathers, especially when those hands once held whips.
It’s just so odd that nobody cares that Market St. became 33rd St., but all of the sudden it’s a radical act of historical erasure to take the names of old, dead racists off street signs. Names change. It’s not a big deal to wipe the slate clean every once in a while and start fresh. If you want history, go read a book.
Some might retort and say “If Fitzgerald is bad because he owned slaves, then how can we keep a street called ‘Thomas Jefferson St’?” Maybe we shouldn’t! If the city decided to change it, it wouldn’t matter. Nobody cares that MacArthur Blvd. isn’t called Conduit Rd. anymore. It’s not a big deal and it doesn’t become one just in cases when the old name has associations with white supremacy or slavery. If anything, it should matter less.
If you’re still bothered by name changes, ask yourself: are you defending a name or something else?