WINDSOR, Vt. — The Windsor Selectboard must decide whether to still pursue renaming a controversially named residential street after a community survey showed a lack of majority support to change the name.
Sixty percent of 263 surveyed residents said they are against changing the name of Jacob Street, a residential street named after historical figure Stephen Jacob, a former Vermont Supreme Court justice who had illegally owned a Black slave.
A 1783 bill of sale signed by Jacob confirms his purchase of Dinah Mason, a Black woman, from a Charlestown man named Jotham White. Slave ownership was prohibited in Vermont at that time.
A town study committee, formed to gather public feedback and potential impact regarding a street renaming, surveyed a total of 294 people, including non-resident stakeholders, about whether they supported changing the name. Of this total, 263 were Windsor residents, which represents 7% of Windsor’s total population, according to committee member Michael McNaughton.
Only 32% of the total survey takers and 30% of surveyed residents said they supported changing the name of Jacob Street. Fifty-eight percent of the total survey takers said they were against a name change and 10% remained undecided.
Nearly all survey-takers, approximately 94%, said they knew about Dinah Mason, McNaughton added.
Selector Amanda Smith, who proposed renaming Jacob Street in June, said the selectboard should make the name change regardless of the survey results.
“We are in positions of leadership,” Smith said. “It is fully within our right as a board to make this decision. We are strong enough to make hard decisions and to be leaders for our town.”
Smith, while usually outspoken about the importance of public votes, said that issues pertaining to human rights should not hinge upon a majority opinion.
“Slavery existed for so long in our country because of majority-rule,” Smith said.
Selector Christopher Goulet agreed. Based on his discussions with community members on the issue, Goulet said he has heard no compelling argument for retaining the Jacob Street name but many valid reasons for changing it.
“If our job is to be a welcoming community I find it difficult for us to say that we, the Birthplace of Vermont, don’t really want to address this particular issue for no reason that has met the muster,” Goulet said.
Vice-Chair James Reed said that while he personally supports renaming the street he is hesitant to support a unilateral decision by the selectboard over that of the voters.
To change the name of a local public road, the selectboard will need to hold a public hearing before their vote.
Town Manager Tom Marsh told the board should have the plan in place prior to scheduling the public hearing. That plan should include any zoning configurations and a proposed new name.
“People are going to ask what you’re going to change the name to at the public hearing,” Marsh said. “You don’t want to give them half the story and then say we’ll change the name and get back to you on what it is.”
Marsh, during the selectboard’s August meeting, had pointed to a governing debacle this past summer in the ocean resort town of Wildwood, New Jersey, which on July 1 officially unveiled a street, formerly known as Rio Grande Avenue, under its new name Beach Ball Boulevard. The reception was so poor that by July 10, the name was returned to Rio Grande Avenue.
One alternative to giving Jacob Street a new name would be to declare Jacob Street an extension of Pine Street, which connects directly to Jacob without any intersection between them.
The Vermont Enhanced 911 Board, a state agency, recommended making Jacob Street a continuation of Pine Street, according to McNaughton.
Creating a continuation of Pine Street would require renumbering house addresses on Jacob Street, McNaughton. The change may also have an impact on some home addresses on Pine Street as well. Some Pine Street addresses may need to be changed regardless because their house numbers incorporate a fraction, which the 911 Board said makes them unable to be properly mapped for emergency services responses.
The Windsor board will resume the discussion at their next meeting, scheduled for November, in which they will likely vote whether to continue to pursue renaming Jacob Street by creating a plan and scheduling a public hearing and final vote.
The Town of Windsor is posting the committee’s report and research, including the survey results and public comments, on the town website for public review. The selectboard will also use this time to review the documents more closely before deciding upon further action.