My mother's first name comes from the Shona people in Zimbabwe.
Her middle name comes from the Yoruba people in Nigeria.
Her parents are not (directly) from Zimbabwe or Nigeria. They're descendants of enslaved people from Africa who were brought to the United States hundreds of years ago. There's no real way of finding out where exactly in Africa her ancestors came from.
My grandparents faced a problem many peoples from the African diaspora face when deciding on a name for either themselves or their child. When my mother was born in the '70s, the "Back to Africa" movement in the U.S. was in full swing. Black people were overtly owning their African ancestry but they had to claim the entire continent in lieu of a specific country. The transatlantic slave trade and the systems of racism robbed them of knowing which tribes and regions their ancestors hailed from. In my mother's case, my grandparents wanted her to have some semblance of her African ancestry present in her name.
But what's in a name?
Some would say that names can carry legacy and history and connection. Others would argue that names are arbitrary, that they don't mean anything. Names are just markers and markers aren't always accurate.
These dueling philosophies have resurfaced time and time again in the city of Boston. In February 2018, the Red Sox filed a petition to change the name of Yawkey Way, which was named after longtime Sox owner Tom Yawkey, who has been accused of racist behavior, including allegedly yelling racial slurs at Jackie Robinson and other players. Later in 2018, Boston residents protested the name of Faneuil Hall, a major landmark named after Peter Faneuil, who was a wealthy 18th-century slave owner.
This year, for the first time, Boston residents will vote on whether or not they want to change the name of Dudley Square, named after Thomas Dudley, who in the 1600s served four terms as governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The proposed new moniker? Nubian Square.
Since 2014, the Nubian Square Coalition, comprised of more than 30 businesses and individuals, has led an effort to rename the bustling Roxbury center. On Tuesday, there will be a question on the ballot for Bostonians to answer: Change the name of Dudley Square, or keep it?
Dudley Square boasts a diverse population, comprised of a 55.6% black and 22.4% Latinx residents, according to the 2010 census. The Nubian Square Coalition believes that the name change more accurately reflects the people who call the area home, instead of memorializing Thomas Dudley. "The primary reasons why we've got this campaign is we want to take down the name of a family who supported and advocated for legalization of a law to enslave African people," said Sadiki Kambon, one of the leaders of the Nubian Square Coalition.
Kambon has also been on the vanguard of other name changes, namely for the change of New Dudley Street to Malcom X Boulevard. "We're inundated with names of former slave owners like Warren Street, Ruggles, Codman, Columbus."
The name Nubian Square recalls the ancient Nubian Empire, which sat in modern day Sudan. As one of Africa's earliest civilizations, Nubia led military conquests, built pyramids, and was known for plentiful deposits of gold. It was also the basis for the name of A Nubian Notion, a well-known community space and store that served Dudley Square and Roxbury for almost 50 years. It closed its doors in 2016.
Dudley Square's rename would honor the memory of A Nubian Notion and the legacy of the Nubian Empire. Sadiki and other organizers held a series of community meetings in Roxbury when the name change initiative began gathering steam in 2014. The purpose was to find a new name that the majority of those attending the meetings agreed on. "I originally suggested Meta Warrick Fuller, an internationally renowned black sculptress with roots in Boston," Kambon said. "Folks thought that name was admirable but had other suggestions. I ... proposed 'Nubian Square' and we had a consensus on that."
While the Nubian Square Coalition has the support of community stakeholders like the Neighborhood Development Corporation Of Grove Hall and the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists, there are other who don't agree with the renaming effort.
Melvin Miller, the founder and chief editor of the Bay State Banner, wrote in a 2018 essay that the effort is "misguided." When we spoke earlier this week, he elaborated, "What are we spending a whole lot of time and effort on whether or not we should change the name? ... Who will make a dime more than they do now, if the name is changed?"
Miller went on to point out that, "We have numerous people whom we could remember if we want to change the name away from Dudley." He isn't alone in his position. One person walking in Dudley Square told me "Most people don't even know what they're talking about when they talk about Africa. It's a continent, it's huge."
Because of the way the ballot is written, there isn't an option for those who support the name change but don't agree with the name. The ballot asks, "Do you support the renaming / changing of the name of Dudley Square to Nubian Square?" but it doesn't leave wiggle room for other options. "I think unfortunately, it's worded in such a way where those are the only options," City Councilor Kim Janey said. Roxbury is in her district. "There is no option that says, 'Yes, I would like to change it from Dudley Square, but I'd like to maybe put forth another option.' "
Janey is firmly focused on things like decreasing the wealth gap, increasing wages and creating more affordable housing for the district. But she's aware that the issue of a choosing a "name" has roots in rebellion. "Names are important and they bear a great deal of significance. And I think this cuts across a variety of cultures," Janey said. "Residents determining for themselves what they want to be called ... that is the strength."
In the 1940s, the black population in Roxbury dramatically increased during the Great Migration from the South. In the '60s, stores like A Nubian Notion began to thrive, creating communal space for Dudley's diverse population to engage in cultural exchange. Dudley Square also had its downsides. Systemic inequalities, like redlining, school segregation, housing discrimination and low wages, created conditions ripe for homelessness and violence.
Exasperated by the lack of support from the city, some Roxbury residents mobilized in 1986 to secede "12.5 square miles out of Boston’s center and rename it Mandela, after South African black nationalist leader Nelson Mandela," the Los Angeles Times reported. The group acquired enough signatures to put a "non-binding referendum on the November ballot in the districts, where 98% of Boston blacks live."
Kambon, who remembers the effort and was a part of it, said that people underestimated the power of changing a name. "I think it's interesting when folks say it's just a symbolic act," he said. "Because ... Mayor [Ray] Flynn and his administration ... stood up in resistance to it because they knew what that meant. That meant we were going to be taking control of our own destiny. And that is troublesome for a lot of folks out there, particularly the forces of white supremacy."
There's debate over what caused the failure of the Mandela movement. Byron Rushing, the state representative at the time, cited a lack of solid organizing as a cause. Others believe that Flynn, who was staunchly opposed to the secession, was another major part of its failure. Flynn's administration released a report that stated "projected Mandela would run an annual deficit of over $135 million," writes historian Zebulon V. Miletsky in the Trotter Review. The deficit talk influenced voters before going to the poll. Miletsky also writes, "The One Boston Campaign was formed specifically to lobby against the secession question... it surfaced just about three weeks before the election."
Though secession effort failed, the movement drew national attention. Nelson Mandela visited Roxbury in 1990 and spoke at Madison Park High on local education inequalities and his own efforts to abolish apartheid in South Africa. His presence in Roxbury is memorialized by a portrait on Warren Street.
Thirty-three years later, the efforts to change the name of Dudley Square is reminiscent of this history. On Nov. 5, the entire city of Boston will be able to vote on the question.
Jerome Smith, the city’s director of civic engagement, told boston.com that "we will be giving a keen eye to the way the wards and precincts of Roxbury decided to vote."
The question is nonbinding, which means the city is not obligated to see it through. But Mayor Marty Walsh has committed to exploring the name change if Roxbury residents vote for it.
As both Janey and Kambon admit, changing the name of Dudley Square won't be a panacea for problems like rising rent and displacement. But for others, the process of choosing a name, of demanding the right to do so at all, is where the importance lies. "I think communities, particularly communities of color ... in this country, strive to reconnect and understand more of their history," Janey said. "When I was growing up, I saw a number of people who would change their given name ... to something else to better reflect their understanding of who they are in the world as it relates to their ancestry and African roots."
I think back on my grandparents, pondering what to call my mother. They had no way of knowing if they had direct ties to where they drew her name from. But they knew they wanted her to have a name with a connection, with a history and a meaning. Now, every time someone asks my mother about her name, she repeats where it came from, what it stands for. It's become a way of speaking herself into the world. It's become a part of her self determination.
Nubian Square, to me, seems quite like the same thing. What the name evokes is what's important, not the clinical certainty of historical accuracy. "A young man said to me that he can't wait to be on the 23 bus and the announcer come on the bus and says, 'We're now approaching Nubian Square,' " Kambon said. "You know, that's so important ... it means it's going to be a good thing."