Saturday, March 19, 2022

The easy and actually best way to rename Thurston County

Yeah, in fact, I do think we should rename Thurston County. Or everything named after Samuel Thurston, including Thurston Avenue in Olympia.

Here's a brief update on why Samuel Thurston is not a good namesake. He never lived here, never visited here. His only actual impact here is the worst thing about him. Yes, he did write the Black Exclusion law in the Oregon Territory (which Thurston County was part of back in the day) and he did other things. But the worst thing is that he set our course that we travelled on well after his early death.

The name itself had more to with the politics of the moment in the 1850s. Thurston was a ruthless political operator. Major pieces of our region's racist heritage took root from the Black Exclusion Laws, including:

The common thread through all of these episodes (and more) were that only white people should be allowed to paid labor. Everything else needed to be controlled and discouraged.

But, I don't necessarily think we need to pick a new name. We can keep the Thurston moniker.

This was exactly what King County did when they changed who "King" honors from terrible Vice President Rufus King to really great Martin Luther King Jr. It is just a matter of finding a new Thurston.

The problem with "Thurston" that we didn't have with "King" is that there aren't any giants of politics and culture that we can point at immediately. There are a lot of good Thurstons, not single great one.

For example:

  • Rev. David Thurston of Maine was a pre-Civil War abolitionist minister. He would travel from town to town, preaching against slavery until they kicked him out.

  • Charles Brown Thurston, another New England abolitionist that served in the Civil War but also lived an otherwise quiet live. 

  • Rev. John L. Thurston, of Chicago. He was a fellow traveler of Martin Luther King Jr. and was president of the Chicago chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

  • Baratunde Thurston is a contemporary writer who has been very significant in the anti-racist movement. I mean, if you don't know who this person is, I suggest you give him a look today. 

  • And, why are we so worried about last names? Thurston Moore was lead guitar for Sonic Youth. That's pretty awesome.

  • Lastly, if you look back and deconstruct the name Thurston, you see some evidence that it is a construction of Thor (literally the god of thunder) and stone. As in Thor's Stone. I mean Thor is pretty great, but not literally a Thurston. But, close enough to merit reference.
None of these people or imaginary made up gods are knock-it-out-of-the-park obvious like Martin Luther King Jr., but they all do have one thing in common: they are all better than Samuel Thurston.

So, here is my honest to god (Thor, whoever) answer to what we should with the name Thurston County (Avenue, of wherever). 

We should keep the name Thurston County, but strip it from Samuel Thurston and give it to literally all the good and decent Thurstons (and Thor's Stone) that ever lived. 

I haven't looked all that deeply, but there is no rule that I know of that says you have to keep who you name a place after to one person. 

I also don't have an exhaustive list of Thurstons, but there is no reason that I can see that we can't just open up the list again when we find a new one.

Sunday, March 13, 2022

We should be able to rename Priest Point Park if we feel like it. And Squaxin Park makes perfect sense.

If you wanted to design someone who would be outraged at the prospect of renaming Priest Point Park, you could do much worse than me.

Priest Point Park is probably (outside state-owned parks around the capitol) the jewel of Olympia's park system. More than 300 acres, featuring everything (except athletic fields) you'd want in a park, built first in 1905, it is big, it is old and everyone has been there. Now, the city council is reconsidering renaming it Squaxin Park.

I was born in Olympia. I've lived other places, but this is the place I've always considered home. I have a deeper emotional attachment to this place and the things that are here than anywhere else. And, for people who know me, that is an understatement.

I am also a cradle Catholic. I was raised in Olympia's Catholic community. I went to school at St. Michael's and church there every week for a good portion of my life. I was also born at St. Peter's, but I doubt very much in the 1970s that the Sisters of Providence was what brought my parents to that particular hospital. It was the only game in town. I should also mention that while I was raised Catholic, and I have a latent respect for the faith, I walked away from it in the winter of 2009. But even then, it isn't as if I have a axe to grind against Catholics or Catholic things.

I am also tied to here because of the things that happened here. I am very interested in the history of our community. I've written about it here at this blog and at other places. 

But it is the interest in history, or rather, how my particular taste in history, that drives me to want to  change the name of Priest Point Park. Simply, my interest in history is so I can help our community no understand our past, so we can make our future better.

It is important for us to have an accurate view of what happened, and give honors (like park names and statues) to things that matter, not just whatever we chose back in the day. We are allowed to review our past choices and then move on in a different direction.

But, here are a few good reasons for us to move on.

  1. The Oblate Priests of Mary Immaculate at Priest Point Park were only at Priest Point for 12 years. They showed up in 1848 and then moved on 1860. And, most importantly, they did not have any sort of direct connection to Catholic institutions that came later. St. Martin's College, St. Peter's Hospital, Sacred Heart and St. Michael's were all founded decades later by non-Oblate members of the Church. To draw any connection between Oblate priests travelling west and other Catholic institutions is casual. 

  2. There is already another Priest Point on Puget Sound. Not just in the world, but very nearby here just north of Everett. And the northern one is an actual populated place, which probably makes it more significant. Seems dumb to have two. And if we want to change ours first, then good.

  3. The most important thing the Oblate priests did do is to act as a relay between the tribal communities in the South Sound and the white community during the Puget Sound War. The Puget Sound War was the conflict between the federal and territorial governments immediately following the Steven's Treaties. The Oblate priests had spent a lot of effort trying to convert some of those Indians to Catholicism, so knew people on both sides of the conflict. But even this occurrence points us to the Squaxin Island Tribe, because we need to remember we were at war with them and we turned their namesake island into a prisoner camp. 

  4. Worse, Priest Point Park was where we imprisoned the tribal members who lived around Olympia before we moved them to Squaxin Island. Not a prison camp per se, but on the way to one.

  5. The entire logic behind sending missionaries to the west wasn't to serve Catholics that had moved there, but to convert tribal members who had another religions already to Catholicism. Despite what Catholic historians will lay down later, an attempt at religious colonialism. Continuing to honor that portion of our history, especially given the rest of the context, is a weird decision. (I added this point a few hours after writing this initial post)

  6. The Squaxin Island Tribe asked us to. Their history runs deeper here, and their history is the one we try hard to ignore. Their history is the history we should try to pay closer attention to. The Squaxin Island tribal council passed a resolution on December 10, 2021 requesting the change. 

  7. Lastly, the priests never asked for the honor. They were long gone by the time the city ended up buying the property from the county over a century ago.

Renaming the park doesn't take anything away from Olympia. Catholics still make up a significant portion of our community's religious adherents. The priests didn't front the money to the city in 1905 when the parcels became available from a failed housing development. That was George Mottman. Local lawyer P.M. Troy did the spade work, pulling together the title work to make sure the city got as much of the property as possible, since much of it was already split into lots. But we didn't name the park after those two men. They just went with the inherited name that locals had always called the spot.