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Bellingham council looking at Pickett Road's name over possible link to Confederacy

The Bellingham Herald logoThe Bellingham Herald 4 days ago By Kie Relyea, The Bellingham Herald (Bellingham, Wash.)

The City Council is looking at Pickett Road and its possible link to a Confederate general.

Council members briefly discussed the matter Monday, Sept. 14, after Mayor Seth Fleetwood brought it up during the City Council meeting, noting that renaming the road would be up to the council.

Bellingham officials have been looking into the name since the issue surfaced on social media and during a June 12 protest in Bellingham against racial injustice and inequality experienced by people of color. The event was at the intersection of West Bakerview Road and Arctic Avenue near Costco, and a protester held up a sign that read “Pickett Rd. is 1/2 mile from here. Whatcom Co. has racism.”

Pickett was an Army officer who played a role in Whatcom County’s early days before leaving what was then the Washington Territory in 1861 to serve the Confederacy in the Civil War.

The Southern Poverty Law Center has listed the short road, located off Northwest Drive near Costco in Bellingham, as a public symbol of the Confederacy, one of two in Washington state. The organization says on its website that the road was named in honor of Confederate Gen. George Pickett.

City officials who have been researching who the road was named after were doing so under an administrative process that allows addresses and street names to be changed only if they affect emergency services response.

The committee that handles such requests includes the Bellingham Fire Department, which was told that the road might have been named after William S. Pickett, who reportedly owned property in the area, perhaps in the early 1900s.

Fire Chief Bill Hewett said officials, using the help of a title company, haven’t been able to find such a property owner. Nor have they found an answer to the question of who the road was named after.

“I think we’ve chased down every possible lead that we can,” Hewett said to the City Council on Monday.

A property owner who objected to having the road’s name changed was the one who said it might have been named after a Pickett other than the general, Hewett said.

The road’s name was Bennett Street until 1971, when residents living in what was then the county outside Bellingham asked county officials to rename it Pickett Road. They didn’t provide a reason for their request, and the paperwork from the Whatcom County Commissioners who renamed it didn’t explain the Pickett name origin, according to a Bellingham Herald article in July.

The city annexed the area in 2013, which is why the road’s name is now a Bellingham matter.

Because the road’s name wasn’t changed as an administrative matter, it’s up to the City Council to decide whether to do so as a legislative process.

“It’s in your court,” Fleetwood said to the City Council on Monday after a day and night of meetings, adding that he wanted to bring it to their attention though it was too late for them to take action that night.

The mayor said the council could chew on it and bring the matter back later.

Responding to Fleetwood’s statement that officials don’t know who the road was named after, City Council member Michael Lilliquist said to rename it for James Tilton Pickett — the son

George Pickett had with his wife, a Native American woman believed to be from the Haida tribe, according to an essay by Phil Dougherty on Historylink.org.

City Council member Gene Knutson wondered whether the name should be changed “if there’s no proof” that Pickett Road was named after the Confederate general.

It isn’t the first time the City Council has grappled with the Pickett name.

In November, the council voted to strip George E. Pickett’s name from the bridge that spans Whatcom Creek on Dupont Street, as recommended by the city’s Historic Preservation Commission. It was a previous City Council that named it after Pickett in 1918.

In adopting the Historic Preservation Commission’s recommendations, the City Council agreed that having Pickett’s name on the bridge was “inappropriate and does not reflect the values of the city of Bellingham.”

Before removing the name from the bridge, the City Council relied on research that included The Bellingham Herald archives from a century ago and studying guidelines in the Southern Poverty Law Center’s 2019 publication, “Whose Heritage? Public Symbols of the Confederacy.”

The center’s publication asks “whose heritage do the symbols truly represent, and does the tribute specifically honor an aspect of the person’s Civil War life,” the city staff report noted at the time.

On Monday, City Council member Hollie Huthman wondered if someone from the public might know who the road was named after.

In an interview with The Bellingham Herald on Tuesday, Huthman said she looked over the commission’s records and talked to a member of the commission. Both mentioned there were two periods of time when there was an increase in naming linked to Confederate soldiers — one being around the civil rights era, according to Huthman.

“When looking for clues as to why this road was named for Pickett, that could potentially be a clue,” Huthman said.

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©2020 The Bellingham Herald (Bellingham, Wash.)

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