East Baton Rouge Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome says the city needs to consider changing the names of streets that honor Confederate generals — like Lee Drive, General Forrest Avenue and Confederate Avenue — and taking down statues of those who contributed to slavery.
She says that task will fall to a commission she is creating to study racial inequalities after protests over racial injustice.
"We are in a season where people are recognizing symbols that continue to promulgate racial division and are painful reminders of our past as we try to live in the present," Broome said Tuesday morning during a live town hall with Peter Kovacs, The Advocate's executive editor.
Broome announced earlier this month that she was creating the Commission on Racial Equity and Inclusion after protests stirred by the death of George Floyd, a Black man killed by a White police officer in Minneapolis. But until Tuesday she had not said the panel would address street names and monuments.
Also in the past week, LSU erased from its main library the name of a former university president who, in his writings, had supported segregation, and the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board named a panel to consider renaming Lee High School.
Lee High sits on Lee Drive. Both were initially named after Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, though the school board recently erased the “Robert E.” from the school’s name. Nearby streets also bear the names of Confederate generals: Hood, Stuart and Pickett.
In the Shenandoah subdivision, in the southeastern part of the parish — where voters have opted to create a predominantly White city of St. George — street names include Confederate Avenue, General Pickett Avenue and General Forrest Avenue. Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest was the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.
"One of the reasons I established our commission ... was to ask people that serve on it to look at these symbols and painful reminders of slavery that exist and offer an approach to either rename them and look at statues that may need to be removed,” she said.
When it comes to statues and monuments, the only talks that have been simmering so far among city-parish leaders concern removing the Christopher Columbus statue in downtown Baton Rouge. While Columbus is often credited with discovering America for Europe, critics have pointed out that he enslaved and killed many indigenous people during his voyages.
The statue was donated to the city-parish in 1992 by the Greater Baton Rouge American Italian Association, whose members met with the mayor Tuesday afternoon.
The group’s president, Phillip Cancilleri, said their meeting with Broome was focused solely on the monument’s history and the heritage associated with the names displayed around the monument.
Cancilleri backed away from any debate or implications surrounding calls to have the structure removed.
“The whole plaza is in honor of all those first-generation Italians who immigrated over here and made this their home,” he said. “It was donated as a way to reflect on what they did to make their way into this great country.”
In an interview after Tuesday’s town hall with The Advocate, Broome noted the Columbus statue isn’t the only racially insensitive memorial in the city-parish. Trying to get a handle on just how many streets, buildings and monuments there could be honoring Confederate soldiers or known slaveholders is something she wants to lean on the commission to study and itemize.
“I want them to look at how other cities have effectively done it,” Broome said. “In addition to that, I’m going to ask them what symbol will we unite around as a community in this moment of racial conciliation. Will we create it? Will it be a space? What will be the marker for us saying, ‘We stand united as a community toward racial equity.’“
At LSU last week, its board of supervisors unanimously agreed to remove Troy H. Middleton's name from the university's main library. Middleton, a former LSU president and lieutenant general in the U.S. Army during World War II, has a troubled legacy that surrounds accounts that he tried to maintain segregation.
The parish school board is early in its process for possibly changing the name of Lee Magnet High.
"I think the school board made a wonderful step in the right direction," Broome said during Tuesday's Town Hall. "I’d like to see us approach it holistically. But that we also make sure we're promoting, in this present moment, the removal of systemic racism in institutions that exist in our city and parish."
The mayor herself cannot change the names of streets.
According to the city-parish’s unified development code, a person or group must first submit an application requesting a name change to the planning commission, along with a majority of the property owners along the entire length of the street to be renamed agreeing to the change.
The city-parish must then publish notices about the proposed changes, and then hold public hearings before both the planning commission and metro council. Also, the applicant or group wanting the change is responsible for the cost associated with replacing existing street signs if approved.
Broome is still in the process of appointing the racial equity panel’s 24 members, who will include the student body presidents of LSU, Southern University and Baton Rouge Community College.
The mayor’s office is still accepting applications for the commission. She’s expected to make picks sometime next week with the commission meeting the first time the week of July 6.
“It’s going to be a diverse group of people talking about it and making suggestions and recommendations,” Broome said. “I'm hoping they'll come up with a strategy we can apply to address these vestiges that are painful reminders because we have so many.”