Should the City of Cincinnati Rename McMicken Avenue?

Cincinnati City Councilmember Jeff Pastor wants to replace the name of the street named for Charles McMicken, a Cincinnati businessman who owned slaves. But not everyone is convinced that's a good idea.

click to enlarge Cincinnati City Councilmember Jeff Pastor - HAILEY BOLLINGER
Hailey Bollinger
Cincinnati City Councilmember Jeff Pastor

Cincinnati City Council could soon consider a change to one of the urban core's major arteries. 

Cincinnati City Councilmember Jeff Pastor has introduced a 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.

"Why did we name the street after McMicken in the first place?" Pastor asked at council's Neighborhoods Committee meeting today. "As a descendant of slaves and now an elected official, I absolutely will say this should not be."

Pastor 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 the committee meeting today. "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 council's Neighborhoods Committee meeting today, however, Pastor's idea met some skepticism from committee member Amy Murray and Vice Mayor Christopher Smitherman. 

"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 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 of moving Pastor's motion to a full council vote, said 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. 

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.

Pastor's motion hit something of a procedural snag today, but will likely appear before council soon. Fellow Neighborhoods Committee member Wendell Young was absent from today's meeting, and Murray abstained. Pastor and Smitherman's votes weren't enough to advance the legislation to full council, but the legislation could still find its way to that agenda if Mayor John Cranley adds it.

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