In the Druid Hill community of Charlotte, North Carolina, a predominantly Black neighborhood, residents lived with a constant reminder of the pain and enslavement their ancestors suffered under Jefferson Davis Street. The street was named after the president of the Confederate States, a slave owner who took on the role of chief executive during the Civil War.
In the aftermath of the Civil War and the rise of the Lost Cause myth, symbols of the Confederacy rose across the South, including street names. Following George Floyd's murder and the protests that followed across the country in the summer of 2020, street names, among other memorials of the Civil War, became a focus of change in the City of Charlotte.
Under the leadership of Mayor Vi Lyles, the city determined it was time for reconciliation and concrete change that reflected the diverse population of the city, and telegraph a message of inclusivity and equity.
Mayor Lyles, along with city council members, appointed a 15-person Legacy Commission to make recommendations for making these changes. The commission was tasked with reviewing all of the monuments and street names on public property in Charlotte.
In the report on the Legacy Commission's recommendations, more than 70 city streets were identified as having ties to the Confederacy, slavery, and white supremacy. This presented a significant undertaking, one that the city was limited in budget to overcome.
The commission narrowed the list to streets named after leaders of the Confederacy and white supremacists who actively interfered with progress towards racial equality. That, combined with a survey of community members, produced recommendations for nine streets for name changes.
Once the streets were identified, a new phase of community engagement began. Jefferson Davis Street was selected for the pilot program and the city needed to gauge how best to involve the community in choosing a new name.
Events were hosted, mailers were sent out, and door-to-door outreach was conducted within a quarter mile radius of Jefferson Davis Street.
Seeking community input on renaming streets. Photo by Emily Kunze
The street naming team asked community members to provide suggestions for names. The team vetted the names, ensuring there were no duplicates with existing streets and further considered the impact on emergency services. The suggestions were narrowed down, and residents, business owners and property owners of Jefferson Davis Street were the only people allowed to vote on the name change.
On September 24, 2021, Jefferson Davis Street officially became Druid Hills Way.
After the success of the pilot program, eight additional streets were anointed with new names. Brooklyn Village Avenue, for instance, is named to honor the legacy of the predominantly black community that suffered forced displacement due to the mid-twentieth century push for "urban renewal." More than 1,000 families were forced out with as many buildings demolished.
Renaming what was formerly known as Stonewall Street for the Black community that once lived and held space in uptown Charlotte is a powerful way to reclaim history and repair the harms done by the past. Brooklyn Village Avenue was the last of the nine streets to be renamed, in June of 2022.
The City of Charlotte commissioned a documentary of their historic effort and the work of the Legacy Commission. Watch a shortened version of the documentary:
Considerations for Your Community
With the Legacy Commission, Charlotte demonstrates that visible, progressive change is possible. An effort of this scope, while undoubtedly challenging, is worth the outcome to undo generational harm.
Charlotte is one of several cities demoting figures of white supremacy: