Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board members are taking a fresh look at renaming Lake Calhoun after a new online petition emerged demanding the lake no longer bear the name of a man who was a passionate advocate for slavery.
The petition surfaced after the shooting last week in a South Carolina church left nine people dead.
The alleged shooter specifically targeted the historically black church, and the incident has ignited waves of criticism around the country of statues and symbols that many believe are racist.
“(John C.) Calhoun went as far as to call slavery ‘a positive good.’ His name and legacy should not be honored anywhere,” reads the petition, which had accumulated more than 2,500 signatures by Tuesday afternoon, up from 1,700 the day before. “It is critical that we actively reject white supremacy and all symbols thereof.”
Park Board President Liz Wielinski announced Monday that she’d asked park staff to look into the process for changing the name.
The Park Board wants to know by Sept. 3 whether they have options to change the name through state action.
New evidence surfaced in recent years that the board voted in 1890 to change the name to a Dakota Indian name — a change that didn’t stick — and that there could be some new procedures to allow for changing the name now.
The board had been advised in 2011 it couldn’t make the change on its own and that there were limited options at the state level.
State law sets a process for local voters to petition their county board for a name change, such as those they find objectionable.
But the Park Board was told at the time that the commissioner of the state Department of Natural Resources — who made the ultimate decision — was barred by law from changing the name of a lake or a park after it exists for 40 years.
However, state officials now say they believe that time restriction might not apply in this instance.
The commissioner may still change lake names, but would likely require some kind of local process, such as a vote, that shows local buy-in for the new name.
That’s the opinion of Pete Boulay, who handles such matters for the state DNR.
He also said that despite a state constitutional ban against the Legislature naming waters, it is still possible for legislators to strip a lake of its name while leaving locals to decide on a new name.
That procedure was used in 1995 when the Legislature barred the use of “squaw” in Minnesota geographic names.
Minneapolis leaders have wrestled with renaming Lake Calhoun for decades, but the efforts have generally died out.
Calhoun was the U.S. Secretary of War who dispatched federal troops to build Fort Snelling at the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers.
He also served as vice president and represented South Carolina in Congress, where he said slavery was beneficial to those enslaved because he said it gave them a better life than they’d otherwise have.
Calhoun died before the Civil War after a career in which he became the leading defender of slavery in a state that was a hotbed of secessionist fever.
A statue of Calhoun was vandalized Monday in downtown Charleston, S.C., where the shootings occurred.
News reports say the vandals spray-painted “Black Lives Matter” on the sculpture.
One walker at Lake Calhoun on Tuesday, Travis Anderson, said he’s probably in favor of changing the name.
“His legacy isn’t necessarily one that America should be really proud of,” said Anderson, a Minneapolis resident.
Another resident, Chelsea Waters, said she’d never thought about the name of the lake in the context of a historical figure.
According to contemporary news accounts, the Park Board voted in 1890 to change the name to Lake Mendoza, also called Medoza. That has been translated as Lake of the Cranes or Loons.
But as predicted in an accompanying Minneapolis Tribune editorial, the change didn’t stick.
“After a whole generation has known a lake, a mountain or a river by some particular name, that name will cling to it forever more,” the paper wrote.
Boulay said that the U.S. Board of Geographic Names didn’t adopt the name, although it does list the original Dakota name, Mde Maka Ska, as a variant.
Park Commissioner Brad Bourn has been an ardent proponent of doing away with Calhoun’s name for the lake.
“History evolves and Minneapolis has examples of that. Martin Luther King is an example of that,” Bourn said. “It used to be Nicollet Field.”
He said that although Fort Snelling was a big part of Minnesota history, “it served in a lot of people’s eyes as a concentration camp for native people … From any cultural lens, we’ve moved on and we’re a better people now.”
Moving beyond the lake itself, any name change could create a ripple effect.
At least four Minneapolis neighborhoods take their names from the lake, as do a parkway and several commercial buildings, such as Calhoun Square.
Unlike the lake itself, the Park Board has undisputed power to unilaterally rename the parkway around the lake or the park that surrounds it.
In 1997, the Minnehaha Creek Watershed District named three stormwater settling ponds on parkland southwest of the lake Med’oza Ponds.