by Catherine Franceski
Powhite Parkway, Matoaka Road, Appomattox Street… These are just a few Richmond area streets named after indigenous peoples. As part of my research for the Race & Racism Project, I read Thomas Mustian’s Facts and Legends of Richmond Area Streets. While reading, I was surprised by the number of street names in the Richmond area that have been named for indigenous tribes. To understand the irony and oddity of this phenomenon, it is important to have and understanding the group’s history and legacy in the city of Richmond.
The indigenous population and white settlers in Virginia have had an icy and, at many times, bloody relationship. According to Virginius Dabney in his book Richmond: The Story of a City, the struggle between whites and indigenous peoples started as early as the very first English incursion on the James River into the area that we know as Richmond today. This expedition, led by Christopher Newport, was immediately confronted by indigenous peoples at Richmond, where Newport decided it would be too dangerous to continue further onto land. The explorers left for Jamestown, where many of them were consequently murdered by indigenous peoples. This was the beginning of a hostile relationship that continued for many years. One of the most violent episodes occurred “in 1675 when a Stafford County man and his son were murdered. The treachery by white leaders, who slew several Indian chiefs contrary to a solemn agreement, caused the redskins to go on a wild orgy of killing in the frontier settlements. The slaughter lasted for months, and some five hundred men, women, and children were slain, often after the most dreadful tortures” (7). Here, Dabney, the author, uses outdated terminology such as “redskin,” even while writing in the 1970s, when sports teams were already beginning to change their names and symbols from Native American iconography. More interestingly, Dabney was a liberal writer and opponent of segregation who served at the editor of the Richmond Times-Dispatch for many years. Perhaps his word choice is indicative of sentiment towards indigenous peoples in Virginia at the time due to the enduring legacy of this violent history.
It is important to remember that the white settlers engaged in land theft from indigenous tribes, creating power structures which have dispossessed and subjugated those populations and kept them in marginalized positions for centuries. Because it is rare that oppressors names things after the groups they have oppressed, this, coupled with the violent relationship between the two groups, further raises questions about the abundance of streets named after indigenous tribes. Although I began conducting my research simply looking for stories of self-determined marginalized persons, I noticed these peculiarities and began looking at my research through the lens of irony, trying to find any details that seemed to contradict what I would expect based on facts I had gathered. I found that by focusing on history through the lens of irony, more questions arise and more subtleties are added to an already nuanced history.
Perhaps the streets were just named indigenous names because that’s what the area was always called. Or, perhaps we will never figure out why exactly the streets are named the way they are. Nevertheless, it is ironic that the white people who named these streets would name them after a group they engaged in such violent struggle with for so long. In any event, noticing the irony in this event provokes even more questions, such as, what exactly is in a name anyways?
Catherine Franceski is a rising sophomore at the University of Richmond majoring in Philosophy, Politics, Economics & Law. She is working on the Race and Racism Project in partnership with Untold RVA during Summer 2017 as an A&S Summer Fellow.