|The KKK fights the Catholic Church in this cartoon...|
An August 29th article by Gerry Goldstein of the Valley Breeze entitled "Tuesday's Smithfield council agenda to include Domin Avenue re-naming" had some interesting additions to the story of a street in Smithfield, Rhode Island named after a former "Grand Cyclops" of the Rhode Island Ku Klux Klan named John Algernon Domin. I wrote about this at the Humanists of RI blog after reading a small blurb about it on RI Future.
The last time a street changed its name in Smithfield was in 2001 when the Town Council:
... re-christened one of the community's two School Streets to reflect the name of someone with saintly characteristics.
The street became St. Michael's Way because of its proximity to St. Michael's Church on Farnum Pike.
I think naming a street in Smithfield after a Catholic Church is a good demonstration of how far Smithfield has come in overcoming the anti-Catholic bigotry that gave rise to the Klan in Rhode Island in the 1920's. It should be remembered that in Rhode Island blacks accounted for less than 4% of the population whereas Catholics accounted for 45%. A Klan based on race hatred would not have found fertile soil here but one based on religious intolerance, it is sad to say, did.
That said, I also think that naming a street after a church is a terrible idea, mixing as it does church and state for no real reason. It's an example of religious privilege at work.
The Smithfield Town Council plans to take up the question of the name change tomorrow night, but not a lot is expected to come of this initial meeting.
Council Vice President Richard Poirier said he'll ask to have the issue brought up for discussion, and a majority of the council has indicated that the topic deserves attention.
It seemed unlikely that the council would actually take a vote, because procedure dictates that it must first ask the town manager to look into the issue and make a recommendation.
Poirier favors taking a poll of Domin Avenue residents, feeling that their desires should be part of the process, although he stopped short of saying it would be the only factor.
He said last week that he thinks street names should be reserved for people "who have done something notable, not infamous."
It should also be remembered that at no point did a group of Smithfield residents get together, saying to themselves, "Hey, that racist bigot Klan leader John Domin was a swell guy, let's name a street after him."
Smithfield was one of several sites in northern Rhode Island where the Klan held mass rallies and cross-burnings, many of them on land Domin owned. A dirt path led to the rally field near Georgiaville Pond, and Domin apparently named it after himself. The name stuck after houses were built there starting in the 1940s and the path became a town road.
What I think is most startling is that renaming the road is considered to be controversial.
Initial Valley Breeze & Observer interviews last week revealed mixed opinion on the street, with strong opinions both pro and con.
Since I don't think too many people want to go on record saying that they fully support the efforts of the past efforts of the KKK in modern day Rhode Island, I have to wonder why anyone would object to changing a name that honors the memory of Domin. A comment on the original story in the Valley Breeze by Tony77 explained:
If the street was named for him because he was the head of the KKK and thus used this negative authority to influence either local government officials or those who had the authority to name streets, change the name.
If the land was named for him because he was the owner of the property prior to its development, leave it alone.
This is a little bit like saying that a street named for John Wayne Gacy would be wrong if it was because of his penchant for grisly serial killing but okay if it were because of his delightful clown paintings. Truthfully, how can you divide up the character of a man so neatly? Maybe Domin was a terrific guy (as long as he was dealing with white protestants) but he was also the local leader of a racist terrorist organization.
89 year old Edna Swift, interviewed by the Valley Breeze and a woman who remembers Domin from when she was a child, feels that changing the name of her street would be a big inconvenience. I understand this. Changing the name of the street may cause the mail to be misdirected, or any number of other problems with billing and services. I don't live in Smithfield or on Domin Avenue, but if I did, I think changing the name might be worth the hassle.