The Falmouth Select Board held a hearing on the proposal to change Agassiz Road to Jewel Cobb Road on Monday, November 9. The board took comment but did not vote on the proposal.
The proposal was initiated by Ruth Gainer of High Street and Paula Pace of Agassiz Road, both of Woods Hole. More than 600 people signed a petition to change the road's name, which is named for professor Louis Agassiz. Citing a lawsuit filed by Tamara Lanier against Harvard University, Ms. Pace said professor Agassiz's racist beliefs recently came to light.
"Louis Agassiz, I learned, was a polygenist who believed in the superiority of the white race," she said. "He used his science, along with dehumanizing photographs, in support of his theory. My very strong wish is to live on a road and in a community that is welcoming to people of all backgrounds, races and ethnicities."
Ms. Pace countered the argument that changing the road's name was erasing history.
"No doubt, Louis Agassiz should be and will be remembered for his contribution to science and, given the issue before you, there is a chance he will not be forgotten, neither his science nor his racism," she said. "Changing the name of this road gives us, our Woods Hole/Falmouth, community, the opportunity to make a declaration of who we want to be and how we want to be seen as a community that is truly welcoming to all."
Residents of all seven households on Agassiz Road signed the petition, as did more than 280 people from the Falmouth community at large.
"It is not surprising that many from a wider swath of the Cape, from around the country and even abroad, have signed our petition," Ms. Gainer said. "Woods Hole and Falmouth are known around the world for many attractions, including their six scientific institutions. Many are fascinated by the streets' name tributes to scientists that they see throughout Woods Hole, but we have learned many others are deeply hurt and discouraged to see the name of Louis Agassiz honored on a road sign."
The petitioners proposed changing the road's name to honor Jewel Cobb, who joined the Marine Biological Laboratory as an independent investigator in 1949 while working on her doctorate. A member of the National Academy of Medicine, Dr. Cobb received the lifetime achievement award from the National Academy of Sciences in 1993. MBL director Nipam H. Patel sent a letter to the select board supporting the name change.
"As the MBL considers the ways in which we as an institution can actively confront racism and support our Black community members in tangible ways, we would like to offer the laboratory's support of the community effort to replace the name of Agassiz Road, located in Woods Hole, to honor Dr. Jewel Cobb, an important member of the MBL community for more than six decades," Dr. Patel wrote.
Select board members spoke in favor of the change.
"The argument that we shouldn't be erasing history here, that is not what we're trying to do," board member Samuel H. Patterson said. "In fact, we're going to learn from history. The same could be said of the Confederate officer statues that we see taken down throughout the South. There is a recognition that we don't want that to be the symbol of who we are today. I really support this initiative to change that street name to [honor] someone that we feel is more exemplary of what we should be as a people."
Noting he is generally opposed to removing statues, board member Douglas C. Brown said, "In this case, I think the guy doesn't deserve to have a street named after him."
Mr. Brown said the town could potentially install a plaque stating the former name and describing why it was changed.
Board member Douglas H. Jones said Dr. Cobb is an appropriate namesake.
"I really like the idea of the road being named after Jewel Cobb," Mr. Jones said. "I think it is a great recognition of what she has done, more so than a removal of Agassiz. I don't think there is any real reason that road was named after him. I don't think he ever lived there. I don't think there is all that much he did in Woods Hole. I know he has been a part of the philosophy of the Children's School of Science, but I don't think he connects to Woods Hole in a meaningful way, in the way that Jewel Cobb does."
Chairwoman Megan E. English Braga said the proposed change is more than symbolic.
"These are not just symbols," Ms. English Braga said. "These are really barriers, as we have heard from some individuals, from really feeling accepted and integrated into, in particular, the science community and the Falmouth community."
The public hearing was continued until the board's Monday, November 23, meeting to allow for additional public comment. The petitioners requested the name change, if approved, to not take effect until June 2021, which would allow residents to make the necessary changes in their personal affairs.