I recently had a weekend away in a village near Bath, Freshford, where street names are engagingly straightforward: The Hill, Station Road, Church Lane. A pleasing Bauhaus balance between form and function (or location). They contrast starkly with certain street names in Florence Park, the area of Oxford where I live. The same neat letters on rectangles distinguishing one road from another, but far more complex histories leaking out from the uppercase letters.
For example, Campbell Road, Lytton Road, Cornwallis Road, Clive Road. Ring any bells? The men with these names were all employees of the East India Company, a private company that stripped India of its assets and was the world’s largest opium trader. The men were also key players in British rule in India – a rule that produced 35 million deaths from war and famine.
How and why their names came to be used for our estate (built in the 1930s) is difficult to ascertain with any accuracy. What matters for this piece is that last year four members of our Florence Park Black Lives Matter protest group were prompted to bear witness to the colonial history and cruelty the names represented. We sought to generate awareness of the colonial history embedded in these names by contrasting that history with the real, ongoing local history and voices of our area.
This approach was chosen because we felt that trying to change the street names could upset many who have lived in the area for years.
To date, we have produced a 5-minute podcast for OxEmp (Oxford and Empire Network), ‘Decolonising Florence Park Street Names’, and have erected some posterboards in relevant streets (see picture). In these first steps to move ‘our homes’ away from the crack of the slave-master’s whip and a predetermined hierarchy that places ‘great white men’ at the centre of history, we have been met with smiles and appreciation from those in our diverse community who stop to take the time to read the boards. Many reach out to share their thoughts and stories if we’re in our front gardens to chat, and some come to knock on our doors to find us. A conversation is beginning.
To continue this, we plan to produce leaflets and more boards challenging the idea our community accepts the harmful legacies of colonialism.
We also plan to organise ongoing events that consider the part colonialism still plays in wider society and local communities, and how we can address this.
‘What’s in a name? That which we call a street by any other name would smell more sweet’. With apologies to the Bard.