Omaha’s Dodge Street is the target of the latest movement to undo the naming of an American place for a controversial historical figure.
Don’t worry. You wouldn’t have to learn a new name for the city’s primary thoroughfare. Dodge Street would still go by Dodge Street.
But a proposal endorsed by the Douglas County Board on Tuesday would change the person believed to be memorialized by the street name — from pro-slavery Iowa Sen. Augustus Caesar Dodge to Union Pacific Railroad engineer and Union Army Gen. Grenville Dodge and his brother, N.P. Dodge.
The staff of the Historic General Dodge House is pushing for the change, in honor of the 100th anniversary of Grenville Dodge’s death.
Douglas County Board member Chris Rodgers embraced the idea. The board voted 7-0 Tuesday to ask Gov. Pete Ricketts to “rename Dodge Street in honor of Omaha brothers General G.M. Dodge and N.P. Dodge.”
State government approval would be needed because Dodge Street also is a state highway, Rodgers said.
He was receptive to the idea for two reasons, he said.
Rodgers always assumed, like many people who gave it a thought, that the street was named for Grenville Dodge and N.P. Dodge, whose descendants became a prominent Omaha family that includes real estate businesspeople Sandy and N.P. Dodge.
Rodgers said he’s friends with the Dodges. Changing the name behind the name, he said, would align the facts with the general public perception and honor a family that has made significant contributions to Omaha throughout its history, including to civil rights.
“And the story behind it, with the Iowa senator, made it a little more intriguing to me,” Rodgers said.
The historical record on the naming of Dodge Street is fuzzy. The Douglas County Historical Society’s website says it is named for Augustus C. Dodge, who in 1853 introduced a bill in the U.S. Senate for the organization of the Nebraska Territory.
Sen. Stephen Douglas of Illinois took over the legislation, eventually advancing a bill for organizing Nebraska-Kansas territorial government. The bill passed with a provision that repealed the Missouri Compromise, thus potentially opening the West to slavery.
Historian Michael Todd Landis said Augustus Dodge was a “doughface, a northerner who was pro-slavery.”
Landis, an assistant professor of history at Tarleton State University in Texas, said Augustus Dodge was born and raised on a Missouri plantation with slaves before serving as a senator from Iowa in the mid-1850s. Landis devoted a portion of his book “Northern Men with Southern Loyalties” to Dodge’s career and his role in the Kansas-Nebraska Act.
“Throughout his career, he defended slavery, attacked abolitionism, supported the heinous Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 (which forced Northern civilians to participate in man-hunting), endorsed the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 (which permitted the spread of slavery into formerly free territory), and was an ardent expansionist, hoping to conquer the Caribbean and Latin America and spread slavery there,” Landis said by email Tuesday.
Meanwhile, Grenville Dodge fought for the Union Army, and his brother, N.P. Dodge, helped the war effort from home, said Danette Hein-Snider, memberships and special projects coordinator for the Historic Dodge House.
She and Dodge House Executive Director Kori Nelson pitched the renaming to the Douglas County Board.
Rodgers noted Tuesday that Nate Phillips Dodge, a descendant of the general’s brother, had helped Omaha Urban League Director Whitney Young Jr. work against racial discrimination in the 1950s. Young went on to lead the National Urban League.
The street change wouldn’t cost anything, Rodgers said.
County Board members were enthusiastic in their support.
“This is so fitting and appropriate,” Clare Duda said. “It is righting a little bit of a wrong that has existed for a long time.”
Sandy and Nate Dodge were on hand Tuesday for the board’s vote.
They said they were grateful. Sandy Dodge said he remembered the friendship and efforts of his father, Nate Phillips Dodge, and Young.
“That was groundbreaking work at the time,” Sandy Dodge told the County Board. “We still have a helluva lot more to go.”
As of Tuesday, proponents of the measure didn’t have a formal historical document for the original naming of Dodge Street. They had asked Omaha City Clerk Buster Brown to search city records for one.
Douglas County Historical Society researcher Max Sparber isn’t sure that one exists.
The best sources that he could locate Tuesday were two books written in 1917.
One said Dodge Street was named for Grenville Dodge.
The other, which Sparber considered less authoritative, said Dodge Street bears the name of a prominent Iowa family and a senator from Iowa.
That’s inconclusive, he said.
Hein-Snider and Nelson are determined to make the record clear.
They said they hope to earn the governor’s approval by October.