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Place Naming and the Politics of Identity: A View from Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., USA

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Feature Article
10 Interaction Vol 38 No. 3
Place naming and the politics
of identity: A view from Martin
Luther King Jr. Blvd., USA
Associate Professor Derek H. Alderman, East Carolina University (USA)
Naming is a powerful vehicle for identity. As geographers can attest to, the power of naming is especially evident on
the cultural landscape. Place names (or toponyms) use a single word or series of words to identify and differentiate
geographic features, both human-made (e.g. countries, cities, and streets) and physically based (e.g. mountains, lakes,
and rivers). Place names permeate our daily vocabulary both verbal and visual. They are found on road signs, advertising
billboards, and addresses. Toponyms are critical to the use of nearly any kind of map. They are fundamental to navigating
the landscape, giving meaning to locations, and developing a sense of place. So important are place names as systems
of spatial reference that many countries have set up administrative boards or committees to standardise their spelling
and use on maps and other publications. For example, the Committee for Geographical Names of Australasia (CGNA)
was formed in 1984 to co-ordinate place naming activities across Australia and New Zealand.
Place names do more than express location; they are also symbolic texts. They are embedded in larger systems of
meaning that are read, interpreted, and acted upon socially by people. Humans name places to create a sense of
order and familiarity, frequently choosing names that project the importance of their point of view or cultural identity.
Toponyms can provide insight into people’s religious beliefs, ethnic origins, perceptions of nature and political values.
Interpreting such names is not always straightforward and requires reading their many layers of meaning. In 1916,
the Canadian town of Berlin, Ontario changed its name to Kitchener, honoring the British Secretary of War who died
at the beginning of World War I. On one level, the naming reflected Canada’s support of the Allied effort and the
strengthening of its ties with England. On another level, it symbolised a nativist rewriting of the landscape and an anti-
German hysteria sweeping across Canada. Similar war-time campaigns to remove German place names occurred in the
United States and Australia. South Australia restored many of these German names as a result of the Nomenclature
Act of 1935. Although place names often outlive their creators and influence how future generations connect with a
place, they are not static symbols.
Place names have long played an important role in the study and teaching of Geography – from the rote memorisation
of capitals and physical features to more sophisticated spatial and cultural analyses of naming patterns. Traditionally,
geographers have collected, classified, and mapped toponyms as cultural artifacts, using them to reconstruct the
environmental and human history of places. For instance, names can provide clues to the direction and timing of
human migrations. The practice of migrants transplanting place names from their homeland to new settlements is a
form of cultural transfer. The name Cumberland – widely found in Australia and the United States – likely originated
from of a county located in northwestern England. In the past, scholars have mapped the boundaries of vernacular or
perceptual regions using place names. Business naming patterns, for example, can shed light on how people classify
themselves regionally and how these regional loyalties shift over time.
Newer toponymic approaches stress the cultural politics of place naming. This perspective emphasises that naming
is not an innocent locational reference or a passive artifact. Place naming is embedded within social power relations
and struggles over the identity of places and people. The power to name can change hands with social and political
upheaval. The classic example is Russia, where Saint Petersburg was renamed three times between 1914 and 1991 as the
country shifted from Tsarist rule to Soviet control and then to the post-Communist era. Russia is not alone. The fall of
Communism prompted government leaders in Germany, Romania, Poland, and Hungary to rewrite many toponyms in
order to advance new notions of national identity and history. India renamed large cities such as Bombay (to Mumbai)
and Calcutta (to Kolkata) to remove names used during British colonial rule, which ended in 1947, as well as to reflect
linguistic traditions and groups in those cities. Naming represents a means of claiming (or reclaiming) ownership of
places, both materially and symbolically.
Toponyms are important platforms for countries to re-imagine themselves, but the politics of place naming is not limited
to nationalism and erasing signs of earlier political regimes. Multiculturalism is also of importance and a growing number
of places are being named (and renamed) as a way of constructing a more prominent public identity of racial and ethnic
minorities. Governments are under increasing pressure from minority groups and sympathetic whites to be sensitive to
the toponymic interests of these historically marginalised groups. The State of Victoria, for example, encourages the
use of Indigenous place names and the involvement of Indigenous communities in the naming process. This effort
and others across Australia are meant to counter a history of European explorers, map makers, and settlers ignoring,
September 2010 Interaction 11
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displacing, and Anglicising Aboriginal naming systems. The place naming process sheds light on which social groups
have the authority to name and the selective way in which naming privileges one worldview over another.
The lingering presence of racist place names speaks to the ways in which the Australian landscape has traditionally
subjugated rather than empowered Indigenous cultural identity. A recent search of the Gazetteer of Australia shows that
the word “Nigger” is used in the place names of at least 15 features in the country, including three in the State of Victoria.
In 2008, Victoria ended decades of heated debate by removing one of these offensive place names. Government leaders
renamed Mount Niggerhead, located in the Alpine National Park, to Jaithmathangs. The change generated opposition
from some people wishing to preserve the history of the mountain’s name. The replacement name also drew protests
from an Aboriginal group, the Dhudhuroas, who claimed that the Jaithmathangs were not the original inhabitants of
the area and that the peak is part of their heritage and identity. As the situation in Victoria illustrates, the political stakes
of place renaming can be high for minority groups in asserting that they matter culturally and historically. Enhancing
their cultural identity does not come without controversy, not only because of white opposition but also because of
disagreements and competing claims among fellow minority groups also vying for recognition.
Events in Australia are part of a larger global Geography of place name change worth exploring in the classroom.
Putting these name changes in a wider context can assist students in understanding the changing and contested nature
of place and identity and how minority identity politics vary spatially. In my case, I would like to offer a view from the
United States. America’s racial and ethnic minorities are increasingly turning to place naming as a political strategy for
addressing their exclusion and misrepresentation within traditional, white-dominated constructions of heritage and
identity. In Phoenix, Arizona, Native American leaders and sympathetic government officials successfully pushed to
have Squaw Peak renamed in honor of Lori Ann Piestewa. Piestewa was the first Native American female soldier to die
in combat, a 2003 casualty of the Iraq War. The National Congress of American Indians very much interpreted the issue
in terms of identity politics, stating that the use of squaw as a toponym is “an example of the disrespect for and racism
toward native women, who are often political and social leaders of our communities”.
African Americans have been especially vocal in calling for changes in the place name landscape of the United States.
In arguing for a greater public recognition of their experiences and struggles, African American activists have carried
out a campaign of: (1) removing place names that commemorate white supremacists or purveyors of racial inequality,
and (2) renaming places to celebrate black historical figures, particularly from the American Civil Rights Movement.
These name changes reflect an effort to create a place identity and image that can assist in reconstructing and enhancing
the group identity of African Americans. By naming landscapes in ways that talk about the historical importance of
minorities, African Americans seek to change the way they are valued in the present.
Removing racially insensitive place name references has proved
especially controversial. Florida’s Palm Beach School Board finally
decided to remove the name of Jefferson Davis from a middle
school after several years of resistance from parents and white
Civil War heritage groups. School officials and black community
activists interpreted Davis, the only president of the pro-slavery,
southern secessionist government called the Confederacy, as an
inappropriate identity for the school and its student population.
Events in New Orleans, Louisiana also illustrate the importance that
some African Americans see in rewriting the historical identity of
schools through renaming. In the early 1990s, the Orleans Parish
school board passed a policy that prohibited school names honoring
slave owners and others who did not respect equality. The names
of many white historical figures (including the slave-holding first
president of the United States, George Washington) were removed
from schools and replaced with names commemorating prominent
African-Americans, including Martin Luther King Jr. These name
changes, especially the removal of Washington’s name, sparked
a nation-wide debate.
Slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. holds an important
place in African American efforts to rewrite the commemorative
place name landscape. As a cultural geographer, I have spent the
past several years documenting the emergence of streets named
for Dr King and analysing the place these streets occupy within
the lives and geographies of black and white Americans. Street
names serve, quite literally, as signposts for directing people in
what (and who) is important historically. Martin Luther King
Drives, Boulevards, and Avenues are important centres of African
Figure 1: African Americans and other community organisers
in Manhattan, Kansas USA participated in a march when
dedicating 17th Street for Martin Luther King Jr. in 2007.
Activists see place naming as an opportunity not only to
celebrate minority achievements but to advance greater notions
of social justice and African American identity. Photograph by
Deborah Che (used with permission)
12 Interaction Vol 38 No. 3
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American identity, activism, and community – constituting what the journalist Jonathan
Tilove has called “Black America’s Main Street”. My research examines these streets as
memorial arenas – public spaces for interpreting and debating King’s legacies, grappling
with questions of race and racism, and finding the most appropriate street to identify
with the civil rights icon.
By 2010, at least 893 cities and towns in the United States had named a street for King.
Although these named streets are found throughout the US, they are clustered in the
southeastern region. It is in the Southeast where the earliest Civil Rights Movement
battles were fought and are now the current home of a majority of the country’s African
American population. As an aside, King’s name can be found on streets and other public
places in a wide range of countries – Belgium, Brazil, Cameroon, France, India, Israel,
Italy, Panama, Russia, and Senegal to mention a few. In England, King’s namesakes
include a playground in London. Great Britain has also honored the civil rights leader
with a statue at Westminster Abbey.
Thus far, I have been unable to locate any Australian streets named for Martin Luther
King Jr. However, in Newtown, a suburb of Sydney, there is a prominent mural depicting
King’s face, his iconic phrase “I Have a Dream” and the Aboriginal flag.
At least in the case of the United States, the place name commemoration of King
evokes highly public debates and protests, exposing racial and political tensions within
communities. One of the largest obstacles facing African Americans is the prevailing
assumption among the white establishment that King’s historical relevance is limited
to the black community and hence renamed streets should not cut across traditional
racial boundaries in cities. For many activists, naming a road that stretches beyond
Figure 3: A statue of Martin Luther King Jr. was
erected at Westminster Abbey in 1998. King stands
along statues of nine other 20th-century Christian
martyrs from around the globe, including assassinated
Roman Catholic archbishop of El Salvador Oscar
Romero. Although not depicted in the photograph,
the King statue occupies an especially prominent place
above the centre door of the royal church. Photograph
by Tom Rickenbach (used with permission)
Figure 2: Martin Luther King Jr. Streets are found in 40 states and the District of Columbia. Over
75 percent of the nation’s King roadways are located in ten southern states. Georgia, the civil rights
leader’s home state, has the greatest number of named streets. King Streets are found throughout the
urban hierarchy, in metropolitan areas as well as small towns and rural areas.
September 2010 Interaction 13
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minority neighborhoods is essential to educating the broader white public about the importance of King and all African
Americans. These debates about where (and where not) to locate King’s name and memory take place between blacks
and whites, but they also occur within the African American community. Some naming proponents are more interested
in inspiring and mobilising their fellow African Americans than challenging the historical consciousness of whites.
Place plays a key role in these struggles to commemorate King through street naming. Some African Americans have
refused to rename a road for the civil rights leader when they believe the street does not have a sufficiently prominent
status or identity. By the same token, some opposing whites believe that naming a street for King will stigmatise their
street’s identity and bring a decline in property value, although there is no evidence to substantiate this. As a result, King’s
name is frequently (but not always) found on side streets or portions of roads located within poor, black areas of United
States cities. The renaming of these degraded and obscure streets has, in some instances, changed the streets’ symbolic
meaning from being a point of African American pride to yet another reminder of continued racial inequality. As some
activists argue, to marginalise the commemoration of King on side streets within the black community, particularly in
the face of African American requests not to do so, is to perpetuate the same force of segregation that the civil rights
leader battled against.
The naming of streets for Martin Luther King Jr. in some ways says less about King and more about retelling the history
of the United States to include a wider, more racially and ethnically diverse society. In this respect, honoring King is
about enhancing the cultural identity of America as a country as well as the cultural identity of African Americans as
a minority group. Yet, this redefinition and enhancement of identity has come with controversy as African Americans
struggle to reverse the control historically exercised by whites over racial and ethnic minorities. These struggles prompt
us to consider how the Civil Rights Movement, both in terms of how it has changed society and how it is remembered,
is an evolving and unfinished project.
Further reading
Carter, Paul (2010) The Road to Botany Bay: An Exploration of Landscape and History, Minneapolis, MN: University of
Minnesota Press (2
nd
Edition, originally published 1987).
Berg, Lawrence and Vuolteenhaho, Jani., eds. (2009) Critical Toponymies: The Contested Politics of Place Naming, Burlington,
VT: Ashgate Publishing Company.
Dwyer, Owen and Alderman, Derek, (2008) Civil Rights Memorials and the Geography of Memory, Athens, GA: University
of Georgia Press.
Monmonier, Mark (2006) From Squaw Tit to Whorehouse Meadow: How Maps Name, Claim, and Inflame, Chicago, IL:
University of Chicago Press.
Randall, Richard (2001) Place Names: How They Define the World – and More, Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press.
Tilove, Jonathan (2003) Along Martin Luther King: Travels on Black America’s Main Street, New York, NY: Random House.
Zelinsky, Wilbur (1988) Nation into State: The Shifting Symbolic Foundations of American Nationalism, Chapel Hill, NC: University
of North Carolina Press.
Figure 4: United States city leaders often bow to
public opposition and confine King’s name to minor,
residential streets or roads largely within African
American neighborhoods. But this is not always
the case and there are interesting counterpoints. For
example, Martin Luther King Blvd. in New Bern, North
Carolina is a major commercial artery with over 200
businesses, including car dealerships, national retail
chains, and a mall. Pepsi-Cola was invented in New
Bern and the Pepsi bottling plant is located on King.
The New Bern case is also noteworthy because the street
naming campaign had white co-operation and support.
Photograph by Matt Mitchelson (used with permission)
14 Interaction Vol 38 No. 3
Feature Article
Internet resources
Committee for Geographical Names of Australasia (CGNA)
www.icsm.gov.au/cgna/
Geographical Renaming (Wikipedia)
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geographical_renaming
Geoscience Australia: Place Names of Australia Search
www.ga.gov.au/map/names/
MLK Blvd. Open Source Journalism and Photography Project
http://mlkblvd.wordpress.com/
USGS: Geographic Names Information System (GNIS)
http://geonames.usgs.gov/pls/gnispublic/
The case of Greenville, North
Carolina USA
West Fifth Street became Martin Luther King Jr. Drive in 1999.
Originally African American leaders wanted all of Fifth Street
renamed – not just part of it – but residents and business
owners on the eastern end strongly opposed the proposal.
King’s namesake marks an area that is predominantly black
whereas East Fifth is mostly white. More recent attempts
to rename all of Fifth Street have failed, leading to deep
frustration within the city’s African American community. In the words of one black elected official, “The accomplishments
of Dr King were important to all Americans. A whole man deserves a whole street!”. Across the United States, street naming
opponents consistently impose strict spatial limits on such proposals, in effect seeking to limit King’s memorial to black areas.
The sad irony is that while King challenged segregation, his legacy is often fixed at a scale that reinforces contemporary racial
boundaries. In the time since the above photograph was taken, another call to honor King down the rest of Fifth Street emerged,
causing several months of intense public debate. Seeking to settle what they saw as a “divisive” issue, white municipal leaders
voted in 2007 to rename the city’s bypass for King and ordered that the existing Martin Luther King Jr. Drive revert back to
West Fifth Street. In response, African Americans in Greenville must now bear the expense and inconvenience of changing
their address, to ensure, in effect, that white property owners on East Fifth Street would not have to do so.
A useful classroom activity could involve students visiting Google Maps with their web browser and exploring the western and
eastern portions of 5th Street in Greenville, North Carolina using maps and satellite images. Ask students to use the Street
View capability in Google Maps to document differences in residential and commercial development on 5th Street. Then ask
students to visit the US Census website and use its online mapping capabilities to examine the demographic characteristics of
East vs. West 5th Street at the block group level, specifically median household income and African Americans as a percentage
of population. These hands-on activities will demonstrate how 5th Street is part of major racial and economic boundary in
Greenville, allowing students to better understand how the continuing social and geographic importance of this boundary
shaped the identity politics of naming a street for King.
I am indebted to Owen Dwyer (Indiana University, Indianapolis) and Margaret Pearce (University of Kansas) for this classroom activity idea.
When someone tells you to go to Hell, where do you go?
In Australia, you can go to at least 190 places, including:
Holy Hell Creek, Victoria
Hell Fire Gully, Victoria
Little Hell Dam, Queensland
Hells Gate Pass, South Australia
In the United States, you can go to at least 900 places, including:
Hell and Purgatory Airport, North Carolina
Big Hell Hole Lake, Louisiana
Hell for Sure Lake, California
Cow Hell Swamp, Georgia
Note: There are far fewer place name references to Heaven; 326 in the United States and only 6 in Australia
Sources: Geoscience Australia: Place Names of Australia Search
USGS: Geographic Names Information System (GNIS)
Figure 5: The photograph of Martin Luther King Jr. Drive in
Greenville, North Carolina speaks to the ways in which naming streets
for Martin Luther King Jr. are constrained by traditional racial
boundaries and territoriality within cities. Such constraints, even
in the face of increased black power and the liberalisation of white
attitudes, point to the contested nature of place and identity in today’s
world. Photograph by Derek Alderman
... mountains, rivers, valleys, springs) and human-made or cultural features (e.g. cities, villages, archaeological sites, remains, streets) (Alderman 2010). Thus, they reflect and identify both the physical and human peculiarities of a place and often change over time due to changes in physical and human peculiarities. ...
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The Sinai Peninsula is a vital part of the Arab Republic of Egypt, geographically and historically. Its uniqueness and diversity of nature are reflected in its place-names, including both physical and human (cultural) features. The objectives of this study are to: (1) construct a digital geo-database of place-names; (2) classify the collected names based on their meanings to understand the motives behind naming them; and (3) utilize GIS-based spatial analysis techniques to map, geo-visualize and analyse the spatial distribution pattern of specific categories of such names. In this paper, the results show that most place-names are descriptive of the place they belong, either in whole or in part. They usually depict their geographical character and that in turn demonstrates how place-names and the naming process itself represent responses to the physical environment and cultural landscape and how place-names studies reveal patterns of settlement in the region under study.
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