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John C. Calhoun may lose the Minneapolis streets named in his honor

Minneapolis is ready to throw down over the name "Calhoun" again. Following the lead of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the federal government now recognizes Lake Calhoun as Lake Bde Maka Ska. Swimmers jumped off the raft off Thomas Beach into Lake Bde Maka Ska Monday afternoon, July 16, 2018.

Minneapolis is ready to throw down over the name "Calhoun" again. Following the lead of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the federal government now recognizes Lake Calhoun as Lake Bde Maka Ska. Swimmers jumped off the raft off Thomas Beach into Lake Bde Maka Ska Monday afternoon, July 16, 2018. Jeff Wheeler, Star Tribune

For a little more than a year now, the former Lake Calhoun has existed under a new name: Bde Maka Ska. But the roads and paths leading to and from the lake still echo its past -- Calhoun Boulevard West, East Calhoun Parkway, Calhoun Drive.

John Calhoun, the former vice-president, slave owner and slavery advocate for whom the lake had been previously named, is still haunting plenty of Minneapolis real estate. And some want to keep it that way.

Which is why heads turned when the Minneapolis Park Board voted an ordinance relating to changing the names of park roads and parkways. Calhouners and anti-Calhouners shot tweets back and forth:

“whatever the city decides to change its name to, the ppl will always call it lake Calhoun! Changing the street names also is just a dumb waste of tax dollars.”

“…Imagine having time to devote to defending those signs. Of all the things to focus on, that’s the one?”

“…you got to be kidding me and how much is that going to cost taxpayers in Minneapolis you guys are such idiots whoever brought this up and decided and whoever voted for this”

(If you’re curious about why people feel the way they do about Calhoun, check out these responses rounded up from the most vitriolic internet commenters we could find.)

Despite the rancor, nothing has changed yet – nor will it soon. The ordinance only codifies which streets the Park Board controls (there are 42) and how, if they so chose, they would go about renaming them. Passing the ordinance itself will require multiple committee hearings and a public hearing, where anyone could tell the commissioners how they feel. In the end, it would take a yea vote from six of the nine commissioners to approve it. So far, Commissioner Meg Forney says, there hasn't been any discussion of going forward with renaming Calhoun's roads. 

But that doesn’t stop people from fretting in advance. Commissioners Forney and Latrisha Vetaw said they both got swamped with calls and emails before the meeting. Wednesday night, several people voiced their concerns, including Erin Kathleen Bell, who lives on West Calhoun Parkway.

“We cannot change history,” she said.

She asked if the commissioners knew of a name that would be “worthy enough” and “perfect enough” to withstand the kind of “scrutiny” being applied to Calhoun. (It should be noted here that Calhoun owned over 100 slaves and described slavery as “a great blessing to both races, with great improvement in the inferior African race, and without deterioration of the superior European race.”)

Other worried about how far this “political correctness” would go, the cost of changing all those signs, and whether the 500 or so property owners living on the park road would pick up the tab. City staff had yet to determine any costs. 

Forney knows there’s a lot of “angst” out there.

“Being a realtor, I get a lot of calls about title issues, or whether this will impact my mortgage,” she said -- not to mention switching licenses, addresses, etc. She viewed the new ordinance as an opportunity to be “transparent” and “engage the community,” that six commissioners weren’t going to change three street names at the drop of a hat. Although:

"I'm sure that's in the works," she says. 

“I believe this is an important step to closing the loop in the entire renaming process for Bde Maka Ska," Commissioner Jono Cowgill said in a statement. Calhoun the man, he said, was "a vehement proponent of slavery, a face of the Confederate states, and someone almost completely unconnected to Minnesota," and it was high time the Park Board stopped promoting him on its signage. 

"I look forward to working with my fellow elected commissioners in moving forward with this important final step," he said. 

Time will tell whether the Calhoun road signs will go the way of the lake. But one thing is certain: Minneapolis has only begun to fight.