The Gaithersburg City Council is reviewing the history of streets and other memorials named after people with ties to slavery. Among the names under review is Benjamin Gaither, the man after whom the city is named.
Gaither, a landowner in Montgomery County, was a member of a family whose roots extended to the Jamestown Colony in the 1600s, Bethesda Magazine reported in 2009. The Gaithers settled in Maryland after the Revolutionary War. Benjamin and his wife Margaret stayed in the area that is Gaithersburg today.
Benjamin Gaither maintained an enslaved labor force, like most landowners at the time, Karen Lottes, the program coordinator of the Gaithersburg Community Museum, wrote in an email to Bethesda Beat. According to census records, he owned 10 slaves in 1800 and 11 slaves in 1810, Lottes wrote.
Another man who owned slaves in Gaithersburg was Frederick A. Tschiffely, who bought 268 acres of farmland in the area where the Kentlands is today, according to state historical records. Tschiffely owned slaves, and in 1856, tried to sell one by placing an advertisement in the Montgomery County Sentinel.
Resident David Goldberg lives on Tschiffely Square Road, which is named after the slave owner. He hopes city officials will change the name.
He wrote to the City Council this month with the request.
“I don’t like living on a street named after a guy who owned slaves,” he said in an interview on Wednesday.
The discussion over the renaming of streets comes after the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died on May 25 in Minneapolis after a white police officer pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for several minutes. Floyd was on the ground and said repeatedly that he could not breathe, as seen in a video.
That officer, Derek Chauvin, and three others have since been fired and charged criminally.
In the weeks since Floyd’s death, protests have broken out across the country, with some resulting in the removal or destruction of Confederate monuments due to the belief that they uphold slavery’s racist legacy. Those opposed to removing the memorials say the history needs to be remembered, despite the wrongdoings of the past.
In Montgomery County, the County Council has asked County Executive Marc Elrich and Planning Board Chair Casey Anderson to review the names of county streets and facilities. Additionally, there have been multiple petitions asking for schools in the county to be renamed.
During a Gaithersburg City Council meeting last month, Council Member Ryan Spiegel asked the city staff to compile a list of streets and facilities that might be named after people with ties to slavery.
Spiegel, in an interview on Wednesday, said Gaither and Tschiffely are just two examples of slaveholders who lived in the city. The city’s staff is conducting a review that has a much broader scope, Spiegel said.
“Many of the names for Montgomery County’s history can be traced back one way or another to slave ownership or other racist policies and practices from the eras from which they come,” he said.
Spiegel said the city will have to consider nuances, such as in cases in which a street is named after a son or grandson of a slave owner.
The review of the names, Spiegel said, is in the early stages.
“I don’t want to leave the impression that we’ve made a decision and we’re definitely changing names or have a path forward. I think this is something that needs to be a community discussion,” he said.
Spiegel said there are also outstanding questions over how the name of a street — or the city, for that matter — might be changed.
“I don’t exactly know how that works. Does the city have free rein, broad, local government authority to make decisions to change names? What are the logistical implications? Do we have to work with the postal service to make sure it all works out? Do we have to work with public safety services to make sure first responders have updated names of maps and streets?” he said.
Mayor Jud Ashman said on Tuesday that renaming can be complicated, but it is worth taking the matter up for consideration.
“The fact is, Maryland was a slave state and Montgomery County was no exception,” he said.
“I don’t think any renaming would be undertaken lightly. But at the same time, we have to reckon with what the history is.”
Dan Schere can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org