Metro, News

Council to consider renaming Magee Street to Bannister Street

Street previously named after slave-trader now named after black artist, businesswoman

By
Contributing Writer
Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Updated Nov. 1 at 4:35 p.m.

The Providence City Council will consider renaming Magee Street — named after slave-trader William F. Megee — to Bannister Street, commemorating the 19th-century local black activists Edward and Christiana Bannister. The council’s Urban Redevelopment Committee passed a resolution to rename the street Monday. The resolution will be voted on by the city council during its Nov. 16 meeting, wrote Providence City Council Press Secretary Bill Kepner in an email to The Herald.

Edward Bannister, a famed landscape and portrait painter, was awarded the “Best Artist in America” at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition. His wife, Christiana Bannister, a successful businesswoman, served as one of Providence’s first civic leaders, founding the Home for Aged Colored Women, which evolved into the Bannister Center nursing home.

“These people lived in a time when African-Americans did not have any freedom,” testified Cheryl Jordan at the committee session. She is president of Stages of Freedom, an organization that empowers minority youth in Rhode Island. “And yet with the freedom that they did have, they didn’t just do something for African-Americans. They served the greater community.”

The Bannisters would have regularly walked the street, having lived on Benevolent before Wriston Quad was built.

With this change, the city will also eradicate the commemoration of a slave trader. Many cities have taken similar measures to remove commemorations to controversial historical figures since protests erupted in August over the removal of a Confederate statue in Charlottesville, Virgina.

“The timing of this request was very fortunate,” said Councilman Samuel Zurier of Ward 2, who introduced a bill championing the change Sept. 26. Earlier that month, the City Council approved legislation condemning Confederate symbols on public property, The Herald previously reported. Because the state was part of the Union during the Civil War, the legislation was a gesture of solidarity and not meant to rectify a local issue, he added. “On the other hand, we do have this legacy in R.I. about being involved in the slave trade. So it just looked like the perfect opportunity to address this national issue in the context of where we live.”

Stages of Freedom proposed to rename a street for the Bannisters more than a year ago. The organization exhausted several options before settling on Magee Street. Residents were sometimes concerned they would have to change their address.

Upon receiving positive feedback from the community on changing “Magee Street,” Ray Rickman, Stages of Freedom’s executive director, proposed the idea to Zurier.

Jordan and Rickman of Stages of Freedom testified in favor of the resolution alongside Providence City Archivist, Caleb Horton; Manager of Policy and Research of the Council, Nick Freeman and Executive Director of the Rhode Island Historical Society, C. Morgan Grefe. Letters of support from Chief of Police, Colonel Hugh Clements Jr., Commissioner of Public Safety, Steven Paré, and Postmaster Ronald Pauline were also shared.

 “My only regret is that the street is so short that we can’t make an even bigger statement about two of the most amazing people I’ve had the privilege to study and treasure,” Grefe said in session.

 The resolution — despite overwhelming support from the community — did initially receive criticism from Richard Wagner and Elizabeth Wheeler, who run a psychiatry practice on the corner of Benevolent and Magee Streets.

 The objecting party made claims that changing its business address would cost thousands of dollars, but Rickman rejected the legitimacy of those figures and argued that their business did not directly face Magee Street but rather Benevolent Street — as the actual address is 12 Benevolent Street.   Wagner and Wheeler did not attend the committee session.

The passed resolution will be finalized by the Urban Redevelopment Committee next Thursday. It marks a significant victory for the community, according to Stages of Freedom.

Correction: A previous version of this article said that the Providence City Council voted on the resolution Monday. In fact, the Urban Redevelopment Committee voted on the resolution — the council has yet to vote on it. A previous headline for this story also reflected the error and has since been changed. The Herald regrets the error.