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Residents Want To Remove St. Louis-Area Artifacts Of Slavery And Colonialism

Picture of Dorsett Road sign. June 12, 2020. 06/12/20
Kae Petrin | St. Louis Public Radio
People who live in and around Maryland Heights are petitioning to change the name of one of its main roads, which was named for a slave trader and anti-abolitionist.

Updated June 17 with new statement from St. Louis County

St. Louis County Executive Sam Page said Tuesday night that he wants to rename county streets and attractions that contradict the county's values. He also asked county officials research statues on county property. 

Earlier on Tuesday, a crew removed a statue of Christopher Columbus from Tower Grove Park in St. Louis.

Original story from June 14:

Northwest St. Louis County residents are petitioning officials to rename a Maryland Heights thoroughfare named after a 19th-century slave trader and anti-abolitionist.

The petition to change the name of Dorsett Road, which spans nearly four miles through the St. Louis County suburb, is among calls nationwide to remove historical artifacts honoring prominent slave holders and colonialists.

Ternesha Williams said that now is the right time to call for the street’s name to be changed, as Americans grapple with questions about racism and police violence against African Americans. 

“We don’t want people to go on the street where it’s named after people who enslaved black people. That’s not OK,” said Williams, who is black. She grew up in Maryland Heights and now lives near the municipality in northwest St. Louis County. 

Williams is leading the petition drive to rename Dorsett Road. She organized a march on Saturday to protest police brutality and call attention to the Dorsett family’s history.

“When my kids get of age, I want it to be where it’s not like this anymore. I don’t want them to feel not safe when they go out on the streets.” 

Credit St. Louis Post-Dispatch
This 1985 St. Louis Post-Dispatch article examines Maryland Heights' history. It notes that Walter H. Dorsett was involved with an anti-abolition group that supported racist laws.

A history of Maryland Heights notes Dorsett Road was named for Walter H. Dorsett, a white man who bought and sold slaves. Dorsett also belonged to an anti-abolitionist group that supported laws outlawing black residents from walking on the city’s streets after dark, according to a 1985 historical retrospect published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. 

A St. Louis County spokesperson said that the county councilmember Kelli Dunaway, who represents Maryland Heights, is aware of the petition and is discussing options with the Department of Public Works and Transportation. 

In New York, Mayor Bill de Blasio has already pledged to rename streets named for figures like Confederate General Robert E. Lee. And protesters around the nation have beheaded and yanked down controversial monuments to Christopher Columbus.

Demonstrators have also renewed conversations about removing St. Louis’ own Christopher Columbus statue. The park’s commissioners discussed potentially removing the Tower Grove Park statue in 2018 but decided to keep it with new educational plaques that explain the harm Columbus did to Native Americans. 

The Christopher Columbus statue has been a source of controversy over the last few years due to Columbus's violent history.
Credit Chad Davis | St. Louis Public Radio
The Christopher Columbus statue in Tower Grove Park is the site of renewed controversy. The statue was dedicated in 1886.

Melody Delmar is a St. Louis citizen and member of the Navajo Nation who is supporting one campaign to remove the statue. 

“That statue is a reminder of all the atrocities,” she said. “It represents a lot of terrible things that happened to us.”

But Delmar said she doesn’t just want the statue taken down. Instead, she wants the park to replace the statue with a monument that recognizes the histories of native people who still live in the St. Louis region today. 

A Washington University graduate student has also started a petition to have the statue taken down, which more than 400 people have signed. 

Tower Grove Park representatives did not respond to a request for comment. 

Follow Kae on Twitter: @kmaepetrin

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org

Kae Petrin covers public transportation and housing as a digital reporter for St. Louis Public Radio.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.