Shakespeare’s Romeo assures us that “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” But the various debates in Minnesota about some long-standing names — a popular Minneapolis lake, a significant historical site, buildings on the state’s largest university campus — suggest that names matter.
It is important in examining these disputes to dismiss the notion that changing a name is akin to changing history. It’s not. It’s changing what parts of history we choose to honor.
That is certainly the case with Lake Calhoun/Bde Maka Ska in southwest Minneapolis.
An Army surveying team mapping the territory in the early 1800s dubbed it Calhoun in honor of their boss, then the secretary of war. The Department of Natural Resources approved the name change in 2018 at the request of Hennepin County. This month an appeals court overturned that change; the DNR says it will appeal to the state Supreme Court.
Giving Minneapolis’ largest lake one of the names it is believed to have borne before the survey crew arrived changes nothing about John C. Calhoun or his legacy. Whether it is Lake Calhoun, Bde Maka Ska or Shakespeare Lake, Calhoun will still have been a vice president, a senator, a congressman, a cabinet officer, a political giant of his time.
He will still also have been a virulent advocate of slavery and secession, with his fingerprints on the South’s failed attempt to shatter the Union.
Minnesota does not need to honor this man, and we are baffled by those who think we should merely because previous generations did.
In that context, let us note that Rep. Jeremy Munson, R-Lake Crystal, went on TPT’s “Almanac” on Friday to defend the Calhoun name and apparently thought it advanced the discussion to make a smirking bathroom pun off the Bde Maka Ska name. That’s an approach befitting a third grader, not a state representative.
Another dispute that reached the Legislature concerns temporary signs installed at Fort Snelling by the Minnesota Historical Society identifying the site as “Fort Snelling at Bdote.”
This, as detailed in a recent story by Minnesota Public Radio, is part of the Historical Society’s effort to provide a more complete and nuanced recounting of the historical site’s past. It also angered some key legislative Republicans, who are now pushing to slash the society’s state funding for daring to acknowledge any history at the location other than that of white settlers. The society is doing its job; the Legislature should not interfere.
A more complicated dispute involves the University of Minnesota, where the Board of Regents is resisting a campus-driven effort to rename buildings named for former university officials now connected to bygone restrictions on blacks, Jews and other ethnic groups.
It’s more complicated because it involves a variety of individuals and different, not necessarily equivalent, actions and because there is legitimate dispute in some cases of how involved in the now distasteful policies some of the administrators were. The dispute is also colored by the disdain some regents display for the views of the faculty and students who advise the administration.
We won’t pretend to have a specific recommendation to this question, but we do offer this thought: The names the university gives its buildings should reflect both its past history and its current ambitions.
If honoring the past celebrates a legacy of exclusion, the past should not be honored. You can call a coffin flower a rose, but it will still stink.