Raleigh neighborhood with racist link debates renaming itself. It hasn’t gone well.

·6 min read

It’s one of Raleigh’s most affluent neighborhoods. The governor has a home there. The state’s attorney general and N.C. State’s chancellor, too.

But now some residents of Cameron Park, a century-old neighborhood off Hillsborough Street, want to change the neighborhood’s name.

And it’s lighting up the listserv.

Cameron Park residents have until Thursday evening to vote on whether to change their community name, which references the Cameron family, once one of the largest holders of enslaved people in North Carolina.

The discussion has grown so heated the neighborhood email listserv was locked this weekend.

“The last year has been really sad,” said Myrick Howard, a resident of 45 years. “It’s just tearing the neighborhood all to pieces. There has been quite a bit of misinformation put out. There have been personal attacks.”

Many neighbors didn’t respond to The News & Observer’s request for comment or declined to speak on the record about the vote.

‘Robust and lively debate’

Cameron Park was developed in the early 1910s with home prices and restrictive covenants aimed at upper-middle-class residents.

The rules explicitly banned Black people from living in the homes unless they were live-in housekeepers.

Now the neighbors view the area as a progressive, intellectual hot spot near N.C. State University and home to Saint Mary’s School and Broughton Magnet High School.

Many prominent people live or own property in the neighborhood including Gov. Roy Cooper, Attorney General Josh Stein and N.C. State Chancellor Randy Woodson.

When Cameron Village, Raleigh’s oldest shopping center, dropped Cameron from its name earlier this year, some neighbors in Cameron Park began wondering if they should take a hard look at their own name.

“Our neighborhood experienced a robust and lively debate on the community listserv,” said Andrew Bagwell, president of the neighborhood association, in a statement Wednesday. “It became clear to the Cameron Park Neighborhood Association that we needed to discuss this issue in an organized, equitable and productive fashion.”

A committee was formed with three people in favor of keeping the name, three people in favor of changing the name and three people who were neutral.

Symbolic gesture

The neighborhood wasn’t named after the Camerons to honor them, Howard said, but because that’s how people had always referred to the land it sits on.

Howard is president of Preservation North Carolina, which has worked to preserve buildings and landscapes, including those of “African American significance and trying to tell the whole story of race in North Carolina.”

Changing the name is merely a gesture, Howard said, adding he doesn’t support changing it.

“It’s symbolic. It is not moving forward the issue of dealing with racism in North Carolina and Raleigh,” he said.

People should be taught the history and impacts of slavery, Jim Crow, lynchings and redlining, he said. Changing the neighborhood’s name and calling it a victory isn’t enough.

He suggested instead that the neighbors donate a percentage of their property assessment toward scholarships for students at historically black colleges and universities. The idea didn’t get a “serious response,” he said.

Geraldine Highsmith said there were other social justice proposals too, but they got no takers.

She was one of the three people assigned to the committee who supported keeping the Cameron Park name.

Highsmith remembers walking through the community while her husband was still in school at N.C. State’s School of Architecture.

“We have made our family grow and thrive in Cameron Park,” she said. “And suddenly the name and the neighborhood was being trashed. And it was very hard to hear.”

There were times the views of all the committee members weren’t represented in statements to the larger neighborhood, she said, adding she felt attacked and stifled when she tried to share her opinion on the listserv.

“It’s a long period of time that we have set down roots in this neighborhood,” she said. “And I like it very much. I like the people. And to get hateful comments hurled at me because I like this place? Because I like the people? Because I like the neighborhood?”

She resigned from the naming committee Wednesday morning.

‘Distrust and pain’

Andrew Bruch has seen how easy it is to be “awful” to a neighbor online. He’s done it himself.

“One of my awful moments, definitely something I am not proud of, I minimized the professional contributions of a couple of very well regarded people in their field,” he said.

“All that to make a point. It didn’t solve anything,” he said. “It didn’t make the point because I was wrong. And it didn’t go to the underlying thing, which is people feel attached to this place and this name.”

Bruch, an attorney, has lived in the neighborhood for 15 years and thinks it’s time to rename it. Still, the two sides have been reduced to just two options without nuance or recognition of the strong feelings people have, he said.

“It’s not simply a disagreement. It’s a ‘Well, you must be in bed with the racists,” he said. And the line between calling out and saying ‘You do realize this is, you know, white privilege talking’ versus ‘You sound like a racist’ is pretty fine.”

Bill Mooney has lived in Raleigh for decades but just moved to Cameron Park within the last year. In emails and on social media, he’s seen the rhetoric become heated as voting has gotten underway.

“There is an argument from some people who I think are well-intentioned, who are concerned about matters of racism and social injustice, but still feel that something like changing the name of the shopping center or changing the name of the neighborhood is not doing enough,” Mooney said. “And it doesn’t make a difference, and therefore, it shouldn’t be done.”

“I really disagree with that,” he said. “I just feel like showing people that you can make small changes and correct small things, shows that you can correct bigger things as well.”

Racial reckoning

This summer a group of Black and Asian American Cameron Park residents sent a letter supporting changing the name co-signed by many white neighbors.

“In this time of racial reckoning, retiring the Cameron namesake is a necessary affirmation of our community’s commitment to diversity, justice and inclusion,” the letter said. “Retaining the name is especially hurtful now that so many institutions have abandoned the Cameron namesake, and now that there is a heightened consciousness of the Cameron family’s racism. We feel this palpably as people of color. Our community is better than our current name.”

The letter goes on to say they also support additional ways to support racial justice.

Announcing our community’s collective donation to a racial justice organization when we announce a new name would be a compelling way to start the next chapter of our neighborhood’s story,” it says.

Voting ends Thursday with an in-person neighborhood association meeting. It could take over a week before all the results are in, Bagwell said.

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