City of Phoenix to change street names with racist origins

Students and faculty voice support and share the origins of the offensive street names, which one student called 'sickening'

 Editor's Note: One of the streets mentioned in the story contains a slur. It has been censored throughout. 

After long discussions among residents and the city council, the city of Phoenix is in the process of changing the names for two racist street names — and some ASU students and faculty stand by the decision reflective of a larger movement.

The streets — Robert E. Lee Street in northeast Phoenix, and Sq--- Peak Drive, which connects E. Lincoln Drive to the Piestewa Peak trails — are unpleasant reminders to many of the long history of racist violence against Black and Indigenous people in the U.S.

“It’s sickening to have a term disregard Indigenous women and a name of a Confederate general,” said Savannah Jacobs, a member of the Oglala Lakota Tribe from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and a senior studying political science. 

The issue of addressing racial inequities and tackling racist monuments has sparked protests across the nation after the death of George Floyd in May, and Jacobs said the renaming is one step toward recognizing “the Indigenous people that have originated on this land.”

“If you wish to truly have a 'community' then we need to take initiative to have better Indigenous recognition and remove the disrespect(ful) terms in women and Indigenous people,” Jacobs said. “Now have that make sense to the Indigenous community.”  

In a Sept. 16 meeting, the Phoenix City Council voted unanimously to change the street names, and residents were invited to share their feedback on the issue. Final decisions about the streets' names will be made by the city council in future meetings, likely no earlier than Jan. 11, 2021.

Several Phoenix residents called in to advocate for changing the name of Robert E. Lee Street, many in support of changing it to “Charles H. Keating IV,” in honor of the Phoenix-born Navy SEAL who died in combat in 2016.

“(The) Human Relations Commission of the city has studied this issue closely over the past several years and has repeatedly endorsed the changing of the name of the street because of the nature of the implication of who and what (Robert E. Lee) honors,” said Jeremy Helfgot, a member of the Phoenix Human Relations Commission

Robert E. Lee was a Confederate general and slave owner. Today, many see his name as a reminder of the Confederacy and as a celebration of racism.

The majority of commenters at the meeting were in favor of changing the name of Sq--- Peak Drive. Ernest Martinez, coordinator of the Piestewa Fallen Heroes Memorial and a homeowner near Piestewa Peak, said that as of Sept. 16, 70 comments proposed the street be renamed to Piestewa Peak Drive. 

“Sq--- Peak was used in the early 1900s to demean women,” Jacobs said.

Pamela Stewart, a historian and senior lecturer in the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts, said settler colonists in the 19th century used the slur toward Indigenous women.

“Seventeen years have passed since 'Sq--- Peak' was renamed Piestewa Peak, yet the short street at the foot of that mountain has retained the former name," Stewart said. "The nearby street now under review only took on the problematic name in 1964. Just before that, in 1961, another problematic renaming took place: Lee Street became Robert E. Lee Street." 

Stewart said the city's history shows a pattern of public installations rooted in racist ideals.

"That same year, the United Daughters of the Confederacy gifted a Confederate monument to the city, ultimately placed in Wesley Bolin plaza,” she said.

Some residents have expressed concern about the expenses that come with address changes, like replacing pre-printed envelopes and letterhead. According to city officials, the two streets include over 150 properties. 

The Phoenix Street Transportation Department estimates renaming the streets would cost around $150 per address, but said people impacted would have the chance to apply for reimbursement for any costs related to the name changes.

“We want to make this as easy as possible for the people affected,'' said Mario Paniagua, deputy city manager.

Jacobs said the Lakota people have fought first hand for the change of other names such as Harney Peak to Black Elk Peak and Devil’s Tower to Bear Lodge.

“I stand with the name change,” Jacobs said. “We deserve the right respect as a community.”

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated Jacobs' year in school. The article was updated 12:45 p.m. on Oct. 22 to reflect the change.


Reach the reporter at smwitte@asu.edu and follow @sydneywitte on Twitter. 

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