City of Cincinnati to Explore Changing the Name of McMicken Avenue

The street is named for Charles McMicken, a Cincinnati businessman who owned slaves. But not everyone is convinced changing the name is a good idea.

Councilmember Jeff Pastor - Hailey Bollinger
Hailey Bollinger
Councilmember Jeff Pastor

Cincinnati City Council approved a motion today asking the city to explore a change to one of the urban core's major arteries. 

Cincinnati City Councilmember Jeff Pastor introduced the motion asking city administration to report on the feasibility of changing the name of McMicken Avenue, which runs through Over-the-Rhine and Fairview.

The street is named for Charles McMicken, a wealthy Cincinnati landowner who deeded $1 million worth of land to the City of Cincinnati that was used to found the University of Cincinnati. The university's McMicken College of Arts and Sciences bears his name — or at least, it did. 

McMicken owned slaves on plantations that he owned in Louisiana and stipulated that the college created on his land should serve white students only.

In light of that fact, last month, UC's board of trustees voted to strip his name from the college. Now, it will be simply the College of Arts and Sciences. Other uses of McMicken's name, including the McMicken Hall building, will remain, however.

Pastor wants the city to follow in UC's footsteps and take McMicken's name from the street — and perhaps name it after McMicken's daughter, Adeline, whom he conceived with a woman he held as a slave. (That history is recounted in this Cincinnati Magazine story by former UC spokesman Greg Hand.) McMicken's will freed his slaves upon his death but also bequeathed wealth to his nieces and nephews while neglecting to leave his children anything.

"What a better way to continue the abolition movement than for an African-American Republican to say 'I'm not going to stand for this?" Pastor said today. "It gets under my skin, because I do descend from slaves."

Pastor has made a distinction between pushing to rename city features named after business owners like McMicken who lived just a few years before the Civil War and emancipation and earlier historical figures with many honorary landmarks named after them like Thomas Jefferson, one of the founding fathers who also owned slaves. 

"Good, bad or indifferent, they were the founding fathers," Pastor said during council's Neighborhoods Committee meeting earlier this week. "I'm not advocating for us to go and change Jefferson or Washington's names. They lived in a different era. A hundred years later, there was a movement, a push in this country to change slavery." 

In that committee meeting, however, Pastor's idea met some skepticism from committee member Amy Murray. 

"We need to slow it down," Murray said. "We don’t have all the information about this person. This is setting a precedent for how we're going to do this in the future.”

Murray has called the name change idea a slippery slope and questioned what the criteria would be to decide future proposals for changing the names of streets. She also pointed out that a total name change could be costly to businesses and residents, who would have to change their addresses on any letterhead or other material.

"I worry that we'll be going down a slope where we're changing a lot of names in the city of Cincinnati," she said.

Smitherman, who voted in favor Pastor's motion today, said in committee earlier this week that he wasn't sure he was in favor of the name change either. 

He said that UC's decision might be "more liberal" than his would have been and that he wants more info about the totality of who McMicken was as a person. Smitherman suggested the UC panel that recommended the decision, as well as other experts, be invited to give presentations before council about the history behind the name. 

Smitherman said the conversation was worth having, however.

"We're talking about people who owned other people," he said. "That's why I think Councilmember Pastor's motion is so important."

All councilmembers voted for Pastor's motion except Murray, who abstained.

The usual process for a full, non-honorary street renaming starts with the city's planning department, which engages property owners along the street in question. It then goes to the City of Cincinnati Committee of Names, which determines whether the proposed new name is already in use or too close to an existing name. The Cincinnati Planning Commission next considers the idea, and then city council must give final approval.

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