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Baton Rouge officials approve street renaming report, but effort faces uncertain future

Confederate Avenue in the Shenandoah Subdivision. Dec. 9, 2021.
Paul Braun
Confederate Avenue in the Shenandoah Subdivision. Dec. 9, 2021.

The East Baton Rouge Metro Council unanimously approved a report that detailed the racist origins of some of the city’s streets and neighborhoods named after Confederate figures and advocated selecting new names that better align with the values of the community.

But while the action acknowledges the council’s willingness to consider wiping the relics of the Confederate “Lost Cause” from Baton Rouge street signs, it does nothing to clear the red tape in the city-parish Unified Development Code that makes it nearly impossible to rename streets in the city.

In Baton Rouge, changing street names is a lengthy process that requires more than half of the residents of a street to sign a petition requesting the name be changed and public hearings before the city-parish planning commission and Metro Council. If successful, applicants are required to cover the cost of changing the street signs.

Councilwoman Erika Green (D-District 5), who led the effort to create the advisory group, acknowledged the disconnect between the citizen volunteers’ desire to remove the Confederate street names and long-standing city-parish policies that make it difficult for such changes to occur.

“Those processes are already in place, but we did review that with our committee to update them, keeping in mind that our committee of volunteers had interest in this issue, but they had to be updated on those things,” Green said Wednesday.

Green, who is resigning from the Metro Council in January to serve as a judge on the East Baton Rouge Parish Family Court, gave no indication that she or any other member of the Metro Council would seek to change the city-parish policies governing street renaming.

The panel approached a metro council committee with a list of 16 streets named after Confederate figures and white supremacists. That list comes from a broader project by the Southern Poverty Law Center documenting monuments, roadways and sites honoring Confederate figures.

Researchers found that stripping neighborhood and street names of their ties to the Confederacy could benefit the city by removing a factor that hurts Baton Rouge’s national reputation and convinces young adults to settle down elsewhere.

In their research, the panel found that the neighborhoods of Southdowns, Shenandoah and Hermitage Oaks each had multiple streets named after Confederate figures. The developer of Southdowns was a member of the Ku Klux Klan, and it was billed as a “whites only” neighborhood when it was constructed in the 1920s.

Researchers, including several faculty members of the LSU Department of History, analyzed newspaper advertisements aimed at attracting residents that ran while the neighborhoods were in development. Others studied the historical context of white flight and school desegregation that surrounded the development of the neighborhoods.

“Some of these developments had advertisements in newspapers that were controversial or were explicitly maintaining Old South traditions like the Lost Cause,” Green said, directly tying the Confederate names to racist ideology.

In previous meetings, committee member and city-parish attorney Courtney Humphrey said she hasn’t heard any ideological opposition to the street renaming effort, “but the factor of ‘cost’ has been a point of discussion among the committee members.”

Green compared Baton Rouge’s largely volunteer effort to the work of the New Orleans City Council’s Street Renaming Commission, which worked with the benefit of outside funding and a full staff of council aides.

“The Nola commission was funded by numerous sources — there was a non-profit called Take ‘Em Down New Orleans, there were celebrity philanthropists, there was grant funding of $25,000 from Microsoft,” Green said. “They have a staff to support this effort, [but] we don’t have staff to support his effort.”

In February, the New Orleans commission recommended changing the name of 37 streets and parks that honor Confederate officials and segregationists. Those recommendations cleared the City Council and are still pending approval by the city Planning Commission, but do not have to undergo an onerous petition process like the one required in Baton Rouge.

Green argued that an office or committee should be created with the sole focus of investigating Confederate street names and “keeping these conversations going” at an advisory committee meeting Monday. She echoed that sentiment Wednesday.

“The committee is still working,” Green said. “Everyone was wondering, ‘In 90 days are you coming to change the name? Are you coming to present a different process?’ Well after four or five meetings we are still learning and discussing.”

Green said the committee plans to continue its meetings and quarterly reports even after she has left the Metro Council.

Paul Braun was WRKF's Capitol Access reporter, from 2019 through 2023.