Charles Fremont Dight lived in a tree and wrote fan letters to Adolf Hitler and founded the Minnesota Eugenics Society.
Minneapolis named a street after him.
It is not surprising that there is a petition to rename Dight Avenue, or that more than a thousand people have signed it, or that the city is already working with residents and businesses along the nine-block avenue to choose a new street name that doesn't celebrate a man responsible for the forced sterilization of generations of Minnesotans and who died in 1938.
The surprise is that it took this long.
News that Dight Avenue was being renamed brought wails of protest from the same people who object when statues of traitors and enslavers and genocidal Italian seafarers tumble off their pedestals and into the dustbin of history. Dight Avenue is canceled, history is erased, street signs are woke now.
But you don't erase a man like Charles Fremont Dight from history.
You learn his history and you take it as a warning. Then you do what you can to make amends.
"He doesn't reflect the values of our community, and it's time to cease that honor that's been put upon him," said Minneapolis City Council Member Andrew Johnson, who represents the 40 or so households along the diagonal stretch of Dight Avenue, sandwiched between Hiawatha and Minnehaha avenues.
Dight was a doctor, a professor and a Minneapolis alderman whose efforts to promote food safety earned him a spot on the street map. He lived in a treehouse on the banks of Minnehaha Creek and believed America could and should breed humans like livestock to create a master race.
Dight Avenue's namesake had no use for people he saw as weak or unwell or unfit, and even less use for the children they might bring into the world. Those children would be tainted, Dight wrote, "just as a stream will be impure that takes its origins from a cesspool."
People have tried for years to remove him from his roadside place of honor.
"We might as well call this Hitler Boulevard," former state Rep. Phyllis Kahn once fumed in a letter to the Star Tribune. She introduced legislation in 2008 that would have added the word "Dight" to the state's shortlist of prohibited place names. If the bill had passed, Dight Avenue would have been history long ago.
The bill did not even get a hearing, because doing nothing about a longstanding injustice is easier than doing something.
So his name stayed on the street signs. Just like his name stood for decades on the former Charles Fremont Dight Institute for the Promotion of Human Genetics at the University of Minnesota. Just like the forced sterilization laws he championed remained on the books in this state until 1975.
The street signs remain. A daily reminder of the pain he inflicted on thousands of women and men entrusted to the state's care.
Until the Minnesota Disability Justice Network launched a petition drive to rename Dight Avenue.
"In a community that's been traumatized, making some of these more simplistic strides to address the historical and generational trauma that people face, I think, is a really positive step forward," Noah McCourt, the group's executive director, told the Star Tribune's Zekriah Chaudhry for a report this week.
Signatures started rolling in. When Johnson surveyed the neighborhood, he said, he found widespread support for the overdue name change. The City Council is preparing for a vote. Public Works is preparing to stamp out some new street signs.
In the end, the people Dight held himself above are the people who are going to bring Dight Avenue down.
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