Julian Carr was a white supremacist and member of the initial Ku Klux Klan. He spoke many times – publicly! – advocating for white supremacy, including at the dedication of Silent Sam, the monument to racism and white supremacy that stood at the center of UNC for decades.

But Carr was wealthy and well-connected and donated land – and like many wealthy, well-connected assholes who donated land in the South, Carr had a series of fellowships, medals, buildings, streets, a mill, and even a town named after him. A lot of work was done  during Reconstruction and in the decades after to make sure Carr – the guy who proudly announced he had “horse-whipped a negro wench until her skirts hung in shreds” – would be glorified and celebrated. (Hell, they even changed the name of a town to honor him! Carrboro was named Lloydville and then Venable until Carr, who lived in Durham, brought electricity to the area. The Carrboro name was adopted in 1913, the same year Silent Sam was erected.)

Julian Carr: The opposite of a mensch

It goes without saying that in the decades these namings and renamings took place, Black residents were terrorized throughout the South. This was the era of the Great Migration, of lynchings, of Jim Crow. There are local writers and historians and residents – Danita Mason-Hogans, Mike Ogle, Seth Kotch, the From the Rock Wall project – that tell these Chapel Hill and Carrboro stories with nuance and depth.

Duke, Durham, UNC, and Carrboro all honored Carr by naming streets or buildings after him. He’s not described as an asshole in newspaper articles written about him or the buildings named after him  – the dozens of articles I read characterize him in pretty glowing terms. For decades.

A column written in 2014 (!) paints a picture of a great businessman and innovator without mentioning his racism, his remarks at the Silent Sam dedication, or his 1899 speech in which he supported “an amendment to the North Carolina constitution that disenfranchised African Americans.” (It’s a glaring oversight that the comment section, years later, point out.)

So it was only pretty recently that we began having these conversations, but of course, the groundwork and emotional labor needed to build the framework to have these conversations took decades, and has been primarily done by Black residents. (This is a well documented phenomena; see Humphrey (2021); Andrade-Dixon (2020); Wingfield (2021).)

Locally, Charlotte Taylor Fryar’s 2019 dissertation – well worth a download and read – traces how Black students and workers organized for decades to get UNC’s Saunders Hall renamed. (Saunders was the head of the North Carolina Ku Klux Klan.) It was, but in response, the UNC Board of Trustees voted to freeze all building renamings in 2015; it took years and more years of student, staff, faculty, and community organizing for the freeze to end. (Also see: the lengthy efforts by the NAACP to rename Airport Road in Chapel Hill to Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd, which should have been a no-brainer and instead took ages. And of course, the efforts by Dave Mason Jr., Danita Mason-Hogans, and Herman Foushee over the decades, and the past few months for the Braxton Foushee renaming.) So. Much. Emotional. Labor. So much time.

A push and pull

And slowly – so slowly! – Carr’s name has been removed. In 2017, the Durham School of the Arts removed a Julian S. Carr building. A year later, Carr Building at Duke was renamed. In 2020, UNC removed the name Carr from the student affairs building, and renamed it.

But in Carrboro, the name has remained – both as a street name and the name of our town.

Last night, the Town Council voted unanimously in favor of renaming Carr Street to honor former alderman Braxton Foushee, a central figure in Chapel Hill and Carrboro’s civil rights movement. It was a conversation that began last October and November, at meetings where the palpable emotion in the room was joy, as Council Member Fray noted last night. That’s because Braxton Foushee is a rockstar of a human being who has dedicated his life to advancing civil rights, and many people came to the podium to speak about his decades of work.

At last night’s meeting, the palpable emotion in the room was not joy. A number of residents of Carr Street spoke against renaming their street in honor of Foushee. The DTH’s Twitter feed has a good rundown of the comments and what was expressed. (For those who don’t use Twitter, I’ll summarize.) There were different reasons given. One speaker said “Carr is a racist, but what you’re doing to us is no better.” Think about the Carr quote from the Silent Sam dedication, and that equivalency for a minute. Yuck.

But that speaker was unique, and there were also really good points made last night from most of the speakers, who were thoughtful and nuanced with their words. There was an explicit acknowledgement from most Carr Street residents that yes, Carr was a racist, and that Braxton Foushee should be honored. And there were other solid points made: Carr Street today is multiracial and both our community and that street now stands for everything Carr himself would reject. Someone noted that Carr has also been dead a long time. True.

I also heard frustration and shock that the Town of Carrboro didn’t communicate this change with residents on Carr Street for two months. The residents wanted to be brought along in the process and have their voices and concerns heard. There were valid reasons for the delay in contacting residents – the town needed to think through a financial assistance fund – but it felt late to some. (We can contrast this town-led approach with the recent residents-led approach to change the name of racist terrible Phipps Street to Lavender Street. That was super easy and everyone felt good about the outcome. It would be *awesome* if everyone who lived on a street named after a Confederate general or racist asshole decided for themselves to undertake the renaming process. But that likely won’t happen.)

So it falls upon the town to decide whether and how to rename streets. If Carrboro is going to continue to rename racist streets – which it should! – it can certainly improve the process.  Include residents earlier. Tell them how much of the address change process will be automatically done. (Most of it – the USPS has a database that feeds into lots of different things.) Give them a toolkit and resources to work through the address updates that do need to be manually done.

I don’t want to knock the feelings of the Carr Street residents – many of them have lived on the street for a long time – and yes, it’s a total pain in the tush to change your address at the DMV or on magazines. I appreciated that Mayor Pro Tem Danny Nowell acknowledged this explicitly, and I appreciate the residents who conveyed these thoughts to council. I was pleased to see that Carrboro has created an assistance fund to cover the cost of document changes for low and moderate income residents.

But this is a process, and it can and will likely get easier in the future. (For example, an effort in Philly to change a street name contacted the USPS, Google Maps, UPS, FedEX, utilities, and county/city government to create a detailed list of what would change automatically – most of it! – which made residents feel less burdened.) And Alexandria, VA is in the process of renaming dozens of street names. We can probably talk to them – and learn how they’re managing this. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel here.

Why we should rename Carr Street, despite these burdens

The naming of our streets affects more than just the residents who live on them.

Rani Dasi, who sits on our school board, spoke out on Tuesday night. She said this: “I would ask you to consider how do I explain to my children why we should maintain a racist name that sticks to me and my family every time I hear it. They don’t understand that and neither do I. I am thrilled to support the proposal to rename Carr Street to Braxton Foushee Street. Let’s move from pettiness and hate to perseverance and wisdom and reflect the value that we say we want Carrboro to represent.”

I agree. Seeing Carr’s name honored is a burden that the Town – explicitly or implicitly – has required Black residents to bear. And for that reason, it should change, even if that change is also burdensome for those who have to update their address. The burdens aren’t equal; the former is far greater and far more harmful than the latter.

Carrboro is now considered to be a pretty progressive place, relatively speaking, but our “feel free” vibes are still a recent development in the town’s 100-yearish history. A century ago, and for decades that followed, Carrboro was a sundown town. It was not a place that reconciled and acknowledged its complicated history. Through the early 80s, there were still pretty openly racist people serving as aldermen – just look at the articles detailing the innuendo surrounding Foushee’s efforts to provide bus service to our residents, or the group that formed to push Mayor Bob Drakeford out.

Having a street named for Carr is something that can change. (It’s harder, for legal reasons, to change the name of the town. Still, in recent years, residents have repeatedly petitioned the town to change the name. Suggestions in the past have included Paris, Bikeboro, Unicornburo, Cottenboro, Drakeford, and changing which Carr the town is named for.)

Carrboro has only recently begun the hard, messy, and uncomfortable work of acknowledging this history, most recently through truth plaques created by the Orange County Community Remembrance Coalition. I appreciate where our now-somewhat progressive town has made progress, and it (again) sucks that some residents have to bear the burden of paperwork for a street name change.

But this is a change I’m glad we’re making. There are thousands of streets and buildings across the country that were named for white supremacists and Confederates and are in the process of possibly changing their names. When you read articles about them – just google “any place name” + “street renaming” – you’ll find that the reasons people list for not renaming are pretty similar across the board: it’s historic, it’s increasing tension, it’s hard, we need more time, we need more education.

That’s not what we heard last night. We heard Carrboro residents who a) freely acknowledged Carr was an odious racist (True!) and b) are shocked that this renaming was happening without their involvement. Both things can be true. And ensuring residents are involved in these decisions – and receive timely notice of them – will only help Carrboro make more of these changes in the future. That’s a good thing.

In an essay in the New York Review of Books, Joshua Jelly-Schapiro writes that the “words we use to refer to streets, buildings, and public places make maps of meaning across the city.” Both Chapel Hill and Carrboro still have a bunch of streets named after really terrible racist people.

Last night, Mayor Pro Tem Nowell said, “It’s a joy, I think, to have the opportunity to do better in our public remembrance. It’s a joy. I think one reason Carr Street is so fitting – in addition to the the obvious replacement of the name, is you know, its provenance and location in our downtown. I think this is a good place for Braxton Foushee to be remembered.”

I agree.

And if we’re going to continue to rename streets — and yes, we should! — we should make it as easy as humanly possible for residents of those streets to navigate the bureaucratic changes. In doing so, we’ll be more likely to make more meaningful, lasting changes across the board.

Melody Kramer is a Peabody-award winning journalist whose work has appeared on NPR and member stations around the country, as well as in publications ranging from National Geographic to Esquire Magazine....