Last night I attended the Smithfield Town Council meeting to listen in on the discussion surrounding Domin Avenue, named for the Grand Cyclops of a Rhode Island KKK branch. A few weeks ago a former resident pointed out this uncomfortable fact, and advised the town that a name change might be in order. Many residents of Domin Avenue and surrounding streets are, to my surprise, against the name change.
The meeting of the Smithfield Town Council started with a prayer. It was the second item on the agenda. The prayer is to "Our Heavenly Father." I have opinions on that, but let's put that issue aside for the moment.
Ninety minutes went by, during which a new Fire Chief, three EMS Captains, one EMS Lieutenant and two new probationary firefighters were sworn in. The oaths, administered by the Town Manager Dennis G. Finlay, all ended with the phrase "so help me God." I have opinions on that, but let's put that issue aside for the moment.
The town, during this opening ninety minutes, discussed issuing licenses, allocated funding for new city owned vehicles, infrastructure repair and security, and dealt with some licensing irregularities with a local Del's franchise. Not too exciting, but this is how the world works, and the work proceeded a a good clip. This is a hard working, focused and efficient Town Council.
Then, after one and a half hours, item G under new business came up, "Consider, discuss and act upon the referral of a proposed street name change to the Town Manager for his recommendation." Since the item was listed as merely asking the Town Manager to make an official recommendation in two weeks, no public discussion on the street name change was to be allowed. Residents of Domin Avenue and other nearby streets, who sat right behind me, were not very happy about this.
The had arrived prepared to discuss the issue, and now, after waiting nearly two hours, were being told that they would have to wait two more weeks, their night essentially wasted. After some hasty consultation with Town Solicitor Edmund Alves Jr., Council President Michael Flynn seemed at a loss. There would be no discussion. Fortunately Council Vice President Richard Poirier pointed out that there was open public comment slated for the end of the evening, the last item on the agenda.
Unsatisfied, many of the Domin Avenue residents were preparing to leave anyway, but one of them convinced them all to stay, and speak their piece. Poirier assured the crowd that there wasn't that much more business to do. He was wrong.
A hour later, after all the business was handled, and after an unrelated issue was argued to the Town Council for way too long, the Domin Avenue contingent was finally allowed to speak.
Generally, any statement that opens with something approximating the phrase, "I don't support the KKK, but..." is a a bad statement. The arguments put forth for not changing the name were not very compelling, and mostly centered on the idea that changing the name of the street would be a hassle.
John Breguet argued that changing the name of the street because it happens to be named after a man who was a bad guy would open the floodgates for other potential street name changes. He asked if the Farnums, a founding family of Smithfield's history, used child labor. If so, should a street be named after them? What of George Washington, a slave owner? What of the military bases throughout the southern states named for Confederate generals? Changing the name of the street, he argued, will lead to a slippery slope of researching and evaluating the name of every street in Smithfield!
This argument fails because there is no slippery slope. George Washington owned slaves, but he also helped to establish the United States of America. The Farnums may have utilized child labor (but this was hypothetical, not proven last night) but the also founded Smithfield. John Algernon Domin was a Grand Cyclops of the Rhode Island KKK, a terrorist hate group, but he was also.... what? Some guy. Aside from owning some property in Smithfield and being a member of a hate group, Domin didn't do anything else. Domin has no other historical claim to fame (or infamy.) Unless we start finding other streets in Smithfield named for leaders of hate groups, there shouldn't be any problems.
Mrs. Joyce, of Domin Avenue, knew when she moved to her house forty years ago that it was on Ku Klux Klan land. Everybody knew, and it was talked about among the neighbors. Mrs. Joyce questioned changing the name of the road because of the cost and the time it would take her and others on the street to comply with the name change. Licenses, bills, medicare, social security and dozens of other hassles, large and small will ensue from the street name change. Senior citizens will be especially hard hit. Only two families on Domin Avenue want to change the name, according to Mrs. Joyce, the rest want it to stay the same.
Council Vice President Richard Poirier pointed out to Mrs. Joyce that the Klan would have opposed his family living in Smithfield, as he is Catholic. He also pointed out that he knew people in Smithfield when he moved in forty years ago who didn't want Italians living there. We're talking about the 1970's here. Poirier said that change is hard, but that people handled it fine when a previous Town Council made changes to street names to accommodate the 911 emergency call system. Poirier also mentioned an email he received from Roger Schenck, the retired Army colonel who started this kerfuffle while researching the Klan, telling him that the opinions of the residents of Domin Avenue on this issue don't matter. Most in attendance felt the opposite.
Mrs. Joyce also mentioned that one of her neighbors, who is ninety years old, knew "Mr." Domin and said that he was one of the nicest people, as far as being a neighbor.
Next up was Rose Marie Cipriano, not of Domin Ave, but of Smithfield. She grew up near Domin Avenue, and had friends there. Her grandmother told her stories of being a child and together with other neighborhood children going into the woods at night to see the crosses burning, "because, kids are curious and that this went on." Never was it mentioned that Domin Avenue was named for a Klan leader, in Cipriano's recollection.
Cipriano's then said, "This is not like removing something that has been posted on a wall or a monument that's been erected for many years in some location on a street. This impacts the lives of the individuals that live there now."
This direct reference to the Cranston prayer banner and the Woonsocket Cross was startling to me, because those cases deal with church/state separation issues, but in a historical context. Cipriano seems to think that the religious or political issues are beside the point in all three cases, and is arguing for historical continuity. The difference in this new case is that individuals will be put through the inconvenience of changing their address, whereas the Prayer Banner and the Cross monument would not inconvenience people in such a personal, tangible way.
Cipriano's other argument is less compelling. She argues that changing the address might open up the residents of Domin Avenue to identity theft issues.
Rema Tomka lives in the house that John Algernon Domin lived in and built. She says she has the man's initials carved into a brick in her basement, "W.H.D." Since these are not the initials of John Algernon Domin, I'm not sure I understand. Clearly I'm missing something here. Since Tomka has recently moved in, another address change would be an extra burden she wouldn't want to waste a sick day on. She said the street is not named for a Ku Klux Klan leader, but for the guy who owned the land that was developed. That's all it is. (But actually, it's both, isn't it?)
Tomka added that if you take away the name, you take away the opportunity to discuss the history and the issue with people and her ability to discuss it with her kids. I have to disagree. I didn't have to live on Hitler Avenue to discuss the holocaust with my children. Tomka says that you can't erase the bad parts of history, which is true, but we don't have to commemorate the bad people of history with place names of honor either. She claims that erasing the name of the street might lead to history repeating itself, because no one will talk about it. The problem is, as previous speakers pointed out, no one was talking about it because, supposedly, nobody knew about Domin Avenue secret name shame. So where is the preventative?
Robert Esposito wanted to know why we're not working on changing the name of Brown University, named for slave traders and smugglers.
Ronald Manni, Council Member, suggested that perhaps some kind of monument or a marker could be erected that dedicates Domin Avenue to all people who have been persecuted in America to remind us that there's no place for hatred in our society. This is a really nice idea.
The last speaker on the topic was Donald Burns. He lives "around the corner from the old Klan field." He feels that the Town Council should just let this issue "wither up and die." It sold a few newspapers, but he feels the issue should just be ignored, and the name of the street allowed to remain as is, its origin lost once more to history.
In two weeks the Town Council will reconvene and have a real discussion on the issue. On one side, maybe, will be people who want to see the name changed. On the other side are a group of people who don't support the KKK...