Residents request that Chapel Hill replace Cameron Avenue name to honor Pauli Murray

GOVERNMENT

By Adam Powell
Correspondent

At Wednesday night’s Chapel Hill Town Council meeting, multiple local residents came forward with a petition and public comments requesting town leaders to replace one of the town’s long-standing street and residential thoroughfare names with a new name, which to them would be symbolic of a new era in town history.

The movement to update Chapel Hill’s Cameron Avenue with a replacement name is largely the work of changethenames.com, a local organization dedicated to removing racist street signs and imagery throughout Chapel Hill.

“We are petitioning the Mayor and Council of Chapel Hill to remove and replace racist street signs,” read a purpose statement submitted to town leaders by the organization. “These signs of shame memorialize white supremacists of the past, maligning and offending our current residents. They have no place in the enlightened Chapel Hill environment of 2024, which celebrates equity, diversity, and inclusion.”

Change the Names has been working to replace street signs and imagery associated with racism and slavery in Chapel Hill going back to 2021. After establishing a website and focusing specifically on changing Cameron Avenue and Cameron Court, the organization began sending informational flyers to Cameron Avenue property owners in 2022. The organization also went door-to-door to the various homes, UNC-Chapel Hill fraternities and businesses along Cameron Avenue to make them aware of their mission.

The organization received several signed petitions in 2022 and 2023 from various local groups and individuals, including Binkley Baptist Church, property owners on Cameron Avenue, as well as other local advocates, historians, and activists. Over time, Change the Names would also like to replace other Chapel Hill street names including Vance Street and Kenan Street, which also have ties to slaveholding men from the mid-1800s.

The aim of Change the Names is to remove the imagery and naming of Cameron Avenue and Cameron Court to that of Pauli Murray, the granddaughter of a slave and great-granddaughter of a slave owner, who was raised in Durham and became a top student in high school, but was denied admission to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1938 due to her race.

She went on to earn degrees from Howard University, the University of California-Berkeley, and Yale University before becoming a civil rights lawyer, professor, and eventually deputy attorney general of the state of California. In the late 1970s, she returned to her native North Carolina and became the first woman of African descent to become an ordained Episcopalian priest.

By comparison, Paul Cameron – the man for whom Cameron Avenue was named – was a UNC-Chapel Hill trustee who, according to the University’s museum, was the state of North Carolina’s largest slaveholder in the years leading up to the start of the Civil War.

Change the Names indicates that Cameron at one time owned as many as 900 human slaves in North Carolina, Alabama, and Mississippi. The organization claims that many of those enslaved persons were forced to build UNC-Chapel Hill back after the Civil War, and that the University bought, sold, and was gifted enslaved persons in these years.

A North Carolina native who attended UNC in the 1820s, Cameron was credited for helping UNC reopen during Reconstruction in the late 1860s and 1870s, while also assisting with raising funds to construct Swain Hall in honor of UNC’s lost soldiers from the Civil War.

Despite these contributions to UNC-Chapel Hill, Change the Names and residents who came out in support of their movement on Monday night believe that Murray, who passed away in 1985, is a more fitting example of the kind of individual most modern-day Chapel Hill residents would like to see their streets named after.

“The Change the Names project seeks to remove the vestiges of racism from street names throughout the town of Chapel Hill,” reads additional literature from the organization’s petition. “The replacement name of Pauli Murray Avenue was chosen based on research and informal canvassing of black and white residents of Chapel Hill. Community input continues to be the source for future replacement names. We, the people of Chapel Hill, must decide whom from our past we will honor.”

“We can’t change history, but there’s no reason to drag the atrocities of history into the 21st century by honoring racists on our street signs,” said resident Joyce Sandy, a member of Change the Names, in a public comment to the council. “They are signs of shame. Chapel Hill has been silent. Silence can be golden, but not this silence. Your silence is complicity because doing nothing enables the damage of racism to continue unchecked. Our signage should instill pride, not pain to people like me. Chapel Hill, please do the right thing. Carrboro did it. Charlotte did it. Durham did it. Hillsborough did it. Raleigh did it. And you can do it too.”

“True emancipation lies in the acceptance of the whole past and driving strength from all my roots in facing up to the degradation as well as the dignity of my ancestors,” added fellow supporter Jesse Huddleston. “To be clear, this name change request to highlight Pauli is not an arbitrary superficial gesture, as Pauli’s family’s heritage and all its complexity is very much tied to Chapel Hill. It would be a fitting, redemptive tribute to change the name in honor of Pauli’s contributions to American democracy and global human rights, and to honor Pauli’s family history, as it represents our shared history and models how we can face up to the degradation and dignity of all our ancestors. Pauli’s story is rooted all over this community. And this is a chance to preserve that story of pursuing true emancipation for generations to come.”

Town leaders did not take any action on the petition Wednesday night but will consider it further in the coming weeks.

“Staff had done some preliminary work on street names last year when looking into a petition to change the name of Dixie Drive,” explained Chapel Hill mayor Jessica Anderson. “The (Town) manager (Chris Blue) and I agreed that it makes sense to have the naming committee meet with staff to review (potential street name replacements). And that meeting is scheduled for later this month. So the manager and I will keep you in the loop.”

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