By Shawn Gladden | Executive Director | Howard County Historical Society
Growing up in Columbia, we were all aware of the strange street names.
My family lived in the “Jeffers Hill” community, which was pretty easy to say and didn’t often lead to questions like “what exactly is a “Blithaire Garth,” which was where my school friends lived.
In the 7th grade, we moved to Wilde Lake and my friends lived on streets named Rivendell Lane and Wood Elves Way off the “Hobbit’s Glen” golf course. I knew these references were from “Lord of the Rings.”
It was around that time that my interest in history was developing alongside my curiosity about Columbia street names. I soon realized that many of the street names referred to works of literature, apparently part of a marketing plan directed by James Rouse to set Columbia apart from the older communities of Howard County.
The plan was to create something new, while still honoring Howard County’s past. Whereas the street names would be new and fresh names attributed to literature and poetry, the “village centers and communities” would be named after original colonial land patents and estates, i.e., “Long Reach” (1695), “Phelps is Luck” (1695), “Steven’s Forest” (1709). This would combine the “old” with the “new” and show respect to the longstanding Howard County families who sold their farms and properties to Rouse so Columbia could be developed.
Some of these names were problematic as time went by. Coon Hunt Court would be renamed April Wind Court in 2012, while Satan’s Wood Court (which was a typo in the original planning documents) would be renamed “Satin’s Wood Court.”
I bring this up because recently I was asked to head up a commission by County Executive Calvin Ball that would look at street and building names on Howard County government property that may need updating or contextualization. While we as a society are immersed in “tribal politics,” this is an interesting time to take on such a subject.
For us at the Howard County Historical Society and the team that we are putting together of educators, historians, archaeologists, academics, preservationists, archivist and community leaders, this is an opportunity to better understand our county’s past and establish a criteria that can be used when a public building or street is named or renamed.
As the director of the Historical Society, leading this commission feels like an obligation and an opportunity all wrapped into one.
Many residents don’t know our local history. My local history lectures have surprised and shocked attendees with stories of plantation life in Upper Anne Arundel County and its “hidden past.”
Upper Anne Arundel County, the Howard District (1838), and pre-Civil War Howard County (1851) was a slave owning county, in a slave-owning state, whose political leanings were always a little more towards the South than the North. The early development of the region looks very similar to the development of Virginia, with numerous tobacco plantations, employing both enslaved and indentured labor.
These plantations were owned by the founding families of Howard County (Carrolls, Dorseys, Warfields, Ridgleys, Shipleys, Hammonds, to name a few) who dominated politics and business during the years that slavery was here.
As a result, numerous landmarks bear the name of these people and the estates that they created. Documenting and honoring the lives of wealthy landowners and successful families has been a very traditional historical method, something we in the history field call “top down” history, looking at our past through the lens of the elite and powerful.
The opposite of that approach is called “bottom up history” with stories of those who lived normal lives under the influence of these powerful people and often give a fuller understanding of our collective history.
Past generations grew up understanding our history through this very narrow lens. Names like Dorsey, Hammond and Warfield were simply names on buildings. It generally was not known that these also were names of the largest slaveholders in the community at that time.
As generations go by, the values of our society change as does the way we look at the accomplishments of people from our past and how we acknowledge that history. This is not a new exercise.
Looking at the map of Howard County from 1878, there are numerous street names and places now named something else. Names were changed for a variety of reasons and reflected what or who was significant to that location at that time.
What we will be doing with this commission is not too different from what has been done numerous times throughout our county’s history.
While our task is complex and nuanced, I would argue what we are doing is long overdue considering the large list of historical figures from our county that we do not honor anywhere. This is our challenge as a community and our opportunity to learn about our legacies.
The Business Monthly | March 2021 Issue