Should the town rename Agassiz Road?
That was the question that some 50 people gathered in Woods Hole Community Hall to address last week.
The street was named sometime before 1917 in recognition of Louis Agassiz, a renowned 19th-century Swiss-American scientist. He was a geologist, biologist and zoologist who pioneered methods of field research. His study of geology, including the history of glaciers, and contributions to ichthyological classification gave him renown as an innovator and ground-breaker. Professor Agassiz was a professor at Harvard University and founded Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology.
He was also a polygenist, believing that human races came from different origins. Throughout his life, he disagreed with Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. Mr. Agassiz was on record as being opposed to slavery, but he commissioned nude photographs of American slaves in 1850 to assess physical differences that would support the idea of white biological superiority. Prof. Agassiz, like others in his time, attempted to use science to support racist viewpoints.
On Wednesday last week members of the community grappled with this dichotomy.
In a written account of words used during the conversation circle, unattributed to speakers, Raymond Hayes of Hyatt Road detailed concerns shared in the room. Words and phrases like “outstanding scientist,” “unique” and “remarkable scientist,” juxtaposed “polygenist,” “scientific racism,” and “white supremacy as a justification for slavery.”
The meeting was a way to “take the pulse of the community,” said Paula Pace, who helped organize and publicize the event. She wanted to give members of the community space to voice their thoughts. The name of the street had not gone unnoticed by her as she walked through her neighborhood, she said, particularly in light of news about the lawsuit.
Tamara Lanier, a descendant of two slaves featured in Mr. Agassiz’s commissioned nude images, filed suit against Harvard University in March, claiming that the university continues to profit off photographs that were forcibly taken to prove the inferiority of black people. More than 40 descendants of Prof. Agassiz signed an open letter requesting that the university offer the early photographs to Ms. Lanier, according to an article in the Boston Globe.
The lawsuit has been widely covered in media outlets.
Over the course of two hours, a talking stick was passed throughout the Woods Hole Community Hall. Written statements from members of the community who could not attend were read aloud.
Members of the community expressed concern that allowing a street to be named after a white supremacist, regardless of his accomplishments, served to exclude people of color.
George M. Langford, a cell biologist and neuroscientist who has held faculty positions at multiple universities, said he spent many summers working as a scientist at the Marine Biological Laboratory. He submitted a written statement to be read aloud at the meeting.
“I have worked hard all of my professional career to support African American students in the biological sciences and I have brought many with me to Woods Hole to work at the MBL. You may not realize how painful it is for young students who see the name of a racist venerated on the street sign in Woods Hole. It gives the clear message that you do not belong. One cannot claim to be for social justice and ignore the harm caused by individuals like Agassiz,” Dr. Langford wrote.
Multiple attendees said Dr. Langford’s statement was impactful.
Others expressed concern that changing the name would erase or hide the history of Prof. Agassiz and his accomplishments, particularly in terms of Woods Hole.
In Woods Hole, Prof. Agassiz is known best for his summer school on Penikese Island. In 1873 a New York tobacco millionaire gifted Prof. Agassiz the island along with a large sum of money to establish a school of natural history. Prof. Agassiz named it the Anderson School of Natural History after its benefactor. Prof. Agassiz died months after the school’s inaugural summer program. His son, Alexander Agassiz, carried on the summer program after his father’s death.
The summer school, although short-lived, served as an inspiration for Spencer Baird in founding Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, according to the MBL website.
Prof. Agassiz died more than a decade before the incorporation of MBL and was not a founder.
“After the discussion I changed my opinion on this issue,” said Andrea Rugh, who lives on Gosnold Road. “I hadn’t really realized some of the things Agassiz did, which were pretty offensive.”
“I was hoping... maybe by making a little step like this it would bring the issue of diversity more toward the fore,” Ms. Rugh said.
Some members of the group noted that the focus should be on larger systemic issues in the community, rather than a street sign.
Ruth Gainer of High Street, who helped organize the event, noted, “The atmosphere that’s created by revering a known racist... it actually has a counterproductive effect on all of the efforts to increase diversity.”
Jane Maienschein, a science historian and professor, noted that it is important to maintain perspective. “Trying to erase the history doesn’t really unmake it,” she said.
Instead, leaving the sign in place might encourage people to reflect on the past, she said. Many of the roads in the neighborhood were named after scientists who inspired the formation of MBL, she added. Thinking critically about Prof. Agassiz and his views on race could lead to a re-assessment of all of the namesakes of streets in the neighborhood, a more extensive project.
Dr. Maienschein also noted that Prof. Agassiz played a role in supporting women in science. The Anderson School of Natural History took on both men and women its inaugural summer, at a time when women were not allowed to participate in graduate programs.
Dr. Maienschein offered the possibility of clarifying that the street is named for Prof. Agassiz’s son, Alexander, a scientist in his own right. Alexander Agassiz was a curator at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology after his father’s death and opened a private biological laboratory in Newport, Rhode Island. As a marine biologist, Alexander Agassiz spent years studying coral reefs in the Caribbean, the South Pacific, and Australia.
Over the course of two hours, a talking stick in the Woods Hole Community Hall offered everyone a chance to share their thoughts, without active debate on the matter. Many of the attendees were members of the Gansett Woods Neighborhood Association. Several people confirmed that not everyone spoke, but everyone had a chance to.
One attendee said the event looked like “democracy in action.”
“We want to have diverse sciences,” said Elie Costa of High Street in a phone interview. “People seemed quite united in the recognition that Agassiz is not the person you would want to name a street after because of what that does to people who know the history,” she added.
From an administrative perspective, the town bylaws are clear, said Town Planner Thomas Bott. The planning board’s authority to change street names is limited. The board may “exchange existing names of streets where duplication or confusing similarity exists within the Town limits after due notice to all abutting landowners and a public hearing, and subject to the provisions of MGL c. 85, §§ 3a and 3b.”
If the street name were to be changed, the community would have to agree on a replacement name.
Agassiz Road has kept its name for more than 100 years. The name was used on a copy of a subdivision plan dated 1917 for “Little Gansett,” later called Gansett Woods, that is archived at the Woods Hole Historical Museum.
Marine Biological Laboratory owned the land that is now known as Gansett Woods. It subdivided the land in 1916, creating 63 lots averaging about 10,000 square feet each, according to a report from John Buck that was researched in 1991. The lots were to be sold to scientists to provide housing, which was already in short supply in Woods Hole Village.
Over time, ownership was transferred, lots were merged, homes were winterized, and the neighborhood changed. The street names remained.
A 1956 Falmouth town directory on file at the Department of Public Works lists Agassiz Road as a 500-foot residential street named after Louis Agassiz.
Today, Agassiz Road is dotted with less than 10 residences. The current residents are scientists and academics or descendants of both.
The Agassiz name left its mark on various other signs over the last century. There is a street in Cambridge, mountain peaks in California, Utah and Arizona, an ancient glacial lake, and animal species that bear some form of the Agassiz name.
In 2002 a school committee in Cambridge voted to change the name of Agassiz School to Maria L. Baldwin School, after its first African-American principal and schoolmaster.
Several people who attended the conversation circle last week suggested acknowledging the history of the street and its namesake through a plaque or community event. Ada Olins of Hyatt Road suggested creating an exhibit at the Woods Hole Historical Museum or MBL that could highlight the history of the neighborhood and namesake of the street sign.
“In a way I feel as though the name change should be the right and responsibility of the residents on the street in concert with the town,” said her husband, Donald Olins.
Many of the people who attended the event noted that they did not know much about Prof. Agassiz and his work prior to sitting down in the conversation circle.
One of the organizers, Ms. Pace, said she is not sure what will happen next, but the meeting served as a means to open up the floor to future conversations about race and inclusiveness in the community.