Friday, June 2, 2023

Does Renaming Help Anything?

In last Sunday’s issue of Kansas City Star, the editorial board published an opinion piece titled “Relics of racism belong in museums, not on Kansas City street signs.” That provocative piece called for renaming some of the major streets in Kansas City—but would renaming those streets help anything?

“Kansas City leaders must develop a plan to rid the city once and for all of street names, monuments and other public symbols that honor slaveholders and others who participated in the oppression of Black Kansas Citians and other minorities,” the editors declared.

There has already been some movement in that direction. As the editors wrote that three years ago “Kansas City took the bold step of stripping the name of prominent real estate developer J.C. Nichols from a parkway and fountain near the Country Club Plaza.”*

Now the target is historic—and infamous—Troost Ave., a major north-south street that has long been the dividing line between the affluent part of Kansas City to the west and the economically deprived and racially segregated part of the city to the east.**

The avenue is named after Dr. Benoist Troost (1786~1859), the first physician to reside in Kansas City and an outstanding civic leader. But according to the 1850 Federal Census Slave Schedule, Troost owned six enslaved men and women.

But is that sufficient reason to remove Troost’s name from the historic street?

It is rather ingenious that Truth is the proposed new name—but that reminds me of the rather untruthful social media platform known as Truth Social, so I don’t know if much would be gained by renaming.

June and I are graduates of William Jewell College (class of ’59), and most of our college classes were in Jewell Hall. Dr. William Jewell (1789~1852) was a physician in Columbia, Mo., and provided the bulk of the funds for the founding of WJC in 1849.

Construction on the first classroom building of WJC was begun in 1850, and it was named Jewell Hall. The first major remodeling was completed in 1948, and that is where June and I had most of our college classes. Recently, though, there have been strong suggestions for the name to be changed.

According to an April 28 article in The Kansas City Beacon, “A commission created to study William Jewell College’s historical ties to slavery recommends renaming Jewell Hall, its oldest building, to honor the enslaved people who built it.”

What would it help to rename Troost Avenue or Jewell Hall? I didn’t know when I was a student that Dr. Jewell had been a slave owner or that enslaved people had helped build stately Jewell Hall—and I don’t know that I would have been particularly upset if I had known that.

After all, that was more than 100 years earlier, before the Civil War. What I should have been more concerned about was the fact that there were no African American students at Jewell when we were students. (June and I were friends, though, with Gladstone Fairweather, a very black Jamaican.)

The first African American students at Jewell were not admitted until the early 1960s, and one of those was A.J. Byrd, who has become a prominent citizen of Liberty and was recently elected to a second term on the Board of Liberty Public Schools.

For decades, though, WJC was primarily a White school with just a few Black students. In recent years, however, the percentage of BIPOC students at Jewell has increased dramatically.

June and I are encouraging enrollment of Black students in Jewell with the establishment of the Leroy and June Seat Family Scholarship, which awards $2,500 each year to an incoming student who self-identifies as a person of color and an active follower of Jesus Christ.

Whether it is an avenue in Kansas City or the college here in Liberty, rather than renaming, seeking to change the past, it seems wiser to make changes in the present which will create a better future for those who belong to segments of society that have been unfairly treated in the past.


* My 3/20/19 and 6/30/20 blog articles were partly about Nichols. You can access those articles here and here.

** The Wikipedia article gives helpful (and correct) information about Troost Avenue, including “points of interest.” One of those is Rockhurst University, located between 52nd and 55th Streets along Troost. For years I drove down part of Troost Ave. going to teach my weekly class at Rockhurst U. 


  1. This morning there have not been many comments sent regarding this new blog article, but I appreciate the brief, warm words from local Thinking Friends Marilyn Peot and Harold Philips, and from Thinking Friends Glenn Hinson in Kentucky and Andrew Bolton in England. And then I received a lengthy email from local Thinking Friend, and good personal friend, Debra Sapp-Yarwood.

    Debra wrote mostly about the change in sexist language since the 1980s when she was in journalism school. And I fully agree with what she wrote about that important change, and I consciously tried to make such changes in my own speaking and writing from about that time. But I don't see any connection between changing sexist language and changing the name of a street or of a college classroom building.

    Concerning the latter, Debra wrote (in the last of her five paragraphs),

    "Changing Troost to Truth will gain nothing for you. Nor will changing Jewell Hall's name, for that matter. These will gain the world for the people who are promoting them. For those driving in the urban core, they won't be reminded of 'Truth Social.' They don't read it or care about it. They will think about . . . . Truth in the greater sense -- justice, equity. And, since they are the ones predominantly driving on that street (not White men from the Liberty area) they are the ones who should rename it. Troost was a name given by white men of another era who admired this physician and civic leader, but that was at a time when many of today's Truth proponents wouldn't have had those opportunities. I would like to think that Troost himself might agree that he has had a sufficient moment in the sun. It is time for the sun to shine on Truth."

    1. Well, Debra, let me respond, to a limited degree, to your comments--but first, thanks you for taking the time to share your thoughts about my blog post.

      As I said above, I don't see the connection between changing sexist language and changing the name of a street or of a college classroom building. There would be a direct connection between changing sexist language and changing the language used to refer to people who are descendants of enslaved people brought to this country from Africa. And, indeed, no one uses the unspeakable N-work now--or they suffer dire repercussions if they do. Neither are the words "Negro" or "Colored People" generally used now--although the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum (on 18th St. just a few blocks east of Troost Ave.) still proudly uses that name. (June and I had a very enjoyable visit there last week with an excellent explanation by a Black man who repeatedly used the word Negro.) And the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) is still a very active civil rights organization (and their Kansas City headquarters is just across 18th St. from the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.) And while "Colored People" is a part of their name, because of the change in language usage, I wouldn't use that name now in referring to African Americans of Blacks (even though I am a dues-paying member of the NAACP.)

      But the problem with Troost Ave. is not something that a name change will remedy. The problem there is how that street was used as a dividing line between two segments of society in Kansas City, and I don't think changing the name of the street will help anything in that regard. It is not changing a name but changing the longstanding discriminatory practices that will "gain the world" for the people who live east of Troost.

      In that connection, I was happy to see what Heather Cox Richardson wrote in her newsletter yesterday:

      "In other economic news, the Biden administration today announced actions designed to address racial bias in the valuation of homes.

      "This sounds sort of in the weeds for administration action, I know, but it is actually an important move for addressing the nation’s wealth inequality. . . .

      "Homeownership is the most important factor in creating generational wealth—that is, wealth that passes from one generation to the next—both because homeownership essentially forces savings as people pay mortgages, and because homes tend to appreciate in value.

      "But a 2021 study by the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation, more popularly known as Freddie Mac, showed that real estate appraisers are twice as likely to undervalue minority-owned property relative to contract price for which the home sells, than they are to undervalue homes owned by white Americans."

      You can read more about that at, but this is the main point--and in my opinion something that is needed far more than changing the name of the street (not that it would have to be one or the other).

      I am certainly not opposed to changing the name of Troost. I just think there are things far more important to work for. And if it is helpful to change names from those entities that bear names of enslavers, it would be far more important to change the names of Jackson County, Johnson County (Kan.), and Clay County (where you and I live). Andrew Jackson, Thomas Johnson, and Henry Clay were far more egregious enslavers than Dr. Troost.

    2. As you know, Leroy, from subsequent "private" conversations we've had, I did not respond to this blog because I am strongly in disagreement with you and did not feel I had the time to get disputatious about it. But, also because of those "private" conversations, I've gone back and read Debra's comments. And I want to say that she is so very right and articulates the issue so very well. And it seems to me a grievous wrong for us older white guys who get uncomfortable with all the many changes we've experienced and are experiencing to turn the truthful insight that "there are more important issues" also into a red herring for not doing the smaller things, especially those of the signs and symbols we live with every day that are the ongoing explicit insults to our minorities by continuing to honor people who practiced egregiously racist behaviors. Indeed, as you know now, too, I would readily support the change of county names, including the two I've lived in here, Clay and Jackson, to remove the ongoing honoring of people who should not be so honored. And I would suggest that common threads between sexist language and the change of street/county names are the issues of inclusion and that of consciousness raising. Multiple scholars in the critical theoretical traditions of the 20th century helped us see the incredible importance of language (signs and symbols) for shaping human consciousness, individual identities, and human culture.

    3. Thanks, Anton, for taking the time to post comments about Troost Ave. While I stand by my concluding paragraph and do not understand why you so strongly disagree, I am quite sure Debra is pleased with what you wrote and that is fine with me. My blog articles are not posted primarily for the purpose of changing people ideas or trying to convince readers to agree with me. I just share my views on various topics, give supporting "arguments" as to why I think those views are correct. But I am not offended when you, Debra, or anyone else disagrees with my position. On the other hand, I have the right to disagree without being censured for stating opposing views.

      Well, without getting into further discussion here, let me just say, and I have said repeatedly, I have no objection to changing the name of Troost Ave. But I am leery of "tokenism," and am afraid that such a change might well be an example of that. (This is something we might want to discuss later.)

      Regarding the linking between changing sexist language and changing the name of Troost Ave., I still strongly contend they are far different issues. Changing sexist language was a great benefit to all women everywhere, and I have supported that change for decades. On the other hand, changing the name of Troost Ave. has perhaps some benefit for some people who live on or near that street. But it does nothing to solve the bigger problem of the racism that has taken place, and still continues to a degree, on the east side of Troost. And it is most likely not going to be a step in the change of a much more offensive name, that of Jackson County, which I am quite sure will never be changed, not in our lifetimes anyway.

  2. I think Anything helps if satisfys most people, I think we put too much emphasis on the minor things and Not the Major things.
    I'm aware that names&words are powerful and we should do whatever we can to avoid using unnecessary names&words that may offend.
    We should be more active in showing Respect for All people's feelings.
    I don't know if this is Appropriate here, but we need to Honor Rodney Kings Famous saying, "can't we All just get along".
    Just my Humble opinion.
    John Tim Carr

  3. Yesterday afternoon, I received the following comments from local Thinking Friend Vern Barnet:

    The argument over Negro Creek in Johnson County raises related issues. If we rename streets and creeks to be virtue-signalers, we will never see the end of it, not in a million years, as future generations will find fault with newly named things. We can rename Jackson County (what a wicked president he was) and Johnson County (what a destroyer of culture and people he was), and seek to purify every taint in history with our own self-righteousness. But the future? We are currently focused on racial issues and pretty much ignore those presently honored who have contributed greatly to our environmental crises. Nobody pays much attention to the fact that the City celebrates human domination over nature by embracing the fountain formerly called Nichols Fountain: .

    "And what about those who have corrupted our food supply with cancer-causing additives and packaging? We don't even know the names of those who in the future might be found gravely damaging society and the planet, and we are no doubt finding ways to honor them daily by naming awards and streets and subdivisions after them."

  4. I much appreciate the brief comment by local Thinking Friend Chris Sizemore, who was president of William Jewell College from 1994 to 2000:

    "Well reasoned and well said, Leroy!"

  5. Then, I received an email from Thinking Friend Virginia (Hurt) Belk in New Mexico. She was in the same William Jewell College graduating class as June and I, and she mentioned knowing Gladstone from Jamaica but also a student from Africa, whom I don't remember at all. Virginia wrote fairly lengthy comments about the racism she saw in Liberty when we were students at Jewell which I appreciated her sharing--and I also appreciated her beginning her comments by writing, "Thank you for this thought provoking post!"

  6. Here are the thoughtful comments I received yesterday from Thinking Friend Ron Kraybill:

    "My view is that renaming won't change the past, or the present, but might have quite an impact on the future. The biggest obstacle to justice for the descendants of slaves is the persistent denial that any real, lasting damage was done. 'That happened 150 years ago! And what do I have to do with it?' End of conversation.

    "Campaigns to change the names of public institutions are in my view a healthy use of conflict to keep the conversation going. True, there will be plenty of people who won't learn a thing about history, or about how the consequences of slavery live on today. But I believe there will be a greater number who actually will pay attention and learn. These awkward, vexing debates raise the odds, I believe, that 1-2 generations down the road, there will be many more people with some inkling of the ongoing economic, social, and spiritual damage of slavery, and responsive to the call that I believe is likely to issue from healthy consciences in response, that wrong on such a scale deserves special effort to redress.

    "Renaming is a sharp rebuke to the status quo; it lays down a marker in history. Granted, it is a purely symbolic act. But symbols, and conflict, are powerful in shaping consciousness, and that, after all, is the ultimate source of the problem."

    1. Ron, thanks for your comments supporting efforts to change names from enslavers of the past. With specific reference to the two name changes being sought that I wrote about in my blog article, they would be, as you say, "purely symbolic" acts. But I wonder how much they would really shape consciousness in the future.

      I have no reason to be opposed to changing the name of Troost Ave. in Kansas City. But the man for whom the street was named was a physician and a geologist. He was not a notable enslaver and did not make his fortune on a slave-run plantation. If the goal is to change consciousness, it seems to me that there are other names, which if changed would have far greater impact. It would make far more difference, for example, for the name of Jackson County to be changed, for Andrew Jackson is said to have owned 150 slaves at the time of his death--and he is also the one who signed into law the Indian Removal Act, which led to the death of some 4,000 Native Americans on the Trail of Tears and caused untold suffering for so many more. Why should there be so much concern for one street in KC when the whole county is named after an enslaver of so many as well as the cruel exploiter of Native Americans?

      As for Jewell Hall on the campus of William Jewell College, what impact would it have to change the name of that one building as long as the college name remains the same? I just don't see how that would be of any significant benefit to the African American students on campus as long as those who graduate would have to write William Jewell College on their resumes when they seek employment after graduation.

  7. A couple of hours ago, Thinking Friend Truett Baker in Arizona sent the following comments:

    "Thanks for the recent blog about name changing. I would be interested in knowing what the 'name-changers' hope to accomplish. Do they hope to change history just because they don't like it? W\ill the next change be to remove all the slavery history from school textbooks just because it was an ugly time for our country? It just seems like a waste of time and energy. There are people who have tried to blot out the Holocaust because it was such a horrible event. Those who deny history are prone to repeat it. Maybe we need reminders of our ugly past. Thanks again."

    1. Thanks for your comments, Truett. I hope you will read Ron Kraybill's comments above as he states well what he thinks would be accomplished by changing the names of streets etc. that were named after enslavers. It is not because they want to deny the history of slavery. To the contrary, they want to do away with using the names of enslavers as if they were people that we should still remember with honor.

  8. In the last few days Ft. Bragg near me had its name changed to Ft. Liberty to remove the name of a Confederate general. One slightly humorous side of this was a Union general also carried the name of Bragg. What do you do? I was simply unconscious of how many public sites were named for Confederate soldiers until all this renaming began. For me it has been an educational process, and I see no reason to glorify those who fought to divide the Union.

    However if we remove all markers of an unwanted past, like Ron Kraybill protested people doing earlier, we risk losing the lessons we need to learn. I cannot see the Jews wanting to bulldoze and remove all signs of Hitler's death camps. Some markers need to remain in the proper context to remind future generations what evil can accomplish when left to its own devices. To be reminded is not the same thing as to honor.

    1. Oops! I misread some of Ron's comments. Renaming is good in so far as it educates. Still let's not lose the lessons history can teach us.

    2. Thanks for posting your comments, Tom--and I appreciate you mentioning Ft. Bragg, for I had seen the notice of that name change and thought it was a good one. In the case of Dr. Troost, for whom Troost Avenue was named, he wasn't famous because of being an enslaver and the street was not named to honor him for being a slave owner. But it is different with Fort Bragg, named after Confederate Army Gen. Braxton Bragg. Since he was fighting for the CSA against the USA, it seems ludicrous that US military bases have been named after such generals who fought against the US. So, yes, I think changing the name of those bases does make a difference. But that is quite a different matter from changing a street name, or a classroom building name, from prominent citizens whose resources and influence were not directly related to their being enslavers.