The Other Columbus: Naming a street after Rosa Parks is a missed opportunity

Scott Woods

Between Liam Neeson, Virginia lawmakers’ penchant for blackface and Columbus City Council honoring Police Chief Kim Jacobs with a cultural understanding fund, it’s been a difficult Black History Month. Not content to rest on its laurels, the city is ringing out this year’s edition by renaming a portion of High Street after civil rights icon Rosa Parks.

Institutional moves like these — Rosa Parks Way, the Washington Gladden Social Justice Park — are attempts to convey an air of equality and tolerance in a city that, frankly, has shown little evidence such values exist. If anything, they expose how much work must be done on an institutional level to even begin understanding Columbus’ actual cultural needs.

I’m sure to a lot of people this all feels a little like looking a gift horse in the mouth, or that I am not taking into account well-intentioned efforts to do the right thing. I imagine it’s confusing. But the reason for the confusion is that, either intentionally or obtusely, what black people actually want isn’t really being taken into account. Black people in Columbus weren’t clamoring for the 700th street in the country named after Rosa Parks, or a park named after justice the city refuses to honor in any concrete way. It’s not like we’ve been keeping our wants a secret: We want police corruption stemmed, better schools, genuinely affordable housing and representative government… you know, typical stuff. The list hasn’t changed much in 60 years.

Are there any famous-enough black people from Columbus that might warrant a sign, that might instill more than derision from the people such moves purport to speak on behalf of? And if representation is not the intent, then there is no meritorious reason at all. When you whip out Martin Luther King, Jr. or Rosa Parks or the Harlem Renaissance in official capacities, it suggests that these are the only things you know about black history. It’s not just a missed opportunity. It’s dismissive. 

I don’t have a problem with naming streets after famous black people. This instance just shows Columbus isn’t very good at it. Columbus has such people. There’s a statue of Elijah Pierce where his art gallery/barbershop used to sit, which was removed to erect a parking garage. There is an entire wall of black luminaries on the Long Street bridge. More than a handful are certainly worth a street sign. For all our attempts to brand the city as legitimate, we consistently miss opportunities to shore up the genuine culture that we already possess.

Signs and parks should denote wins, not mask our political deficiencies. They are, after all, the least amount of effort that could be expended and still be called an attempt at justice.