Controversy over anti-Mormon rhetoric nixes street co-naming

The phrases “The W.M. Evarts” and “The U.S. Senate” are engraved above the doorways of these Second Avenue apartment buildings. A resolution to co-name the street corner was rescinded after the 19th century legislator’s history of anti-Mormon rhetoric was uncovered upon further vetting. (Photo by Ryan Songalia)

By Ryan Songalia

Community Board 6 has reversed its decision to approve a street co-naming in honor of a former New York U.S. Senator and U.S. Attorney General after City Council uncovered anti-Mormon rhetoric in his writings.

After initially approving a co-naming for William Evarts on Second Avenue between East 14th and 15th Streets at a full board meeting last April, the board rescinded the resolution on September 11 when the full board reconvened after the summer recess after the general counsel for City Council had uncovered the parts of Evarts’ history that had not aged well.

The proposal was first brought forward last November by Upper East Side resident Bob Pigott, who used to walk past the apartment buildings located at 231 and 235 Second Avenue on his way to Stuyvesant High School in the mid-1970s.

Above the doorways reads “The W.M. Evarts” and “The U.S. Senate,” and it wasn’t until decades later when Pigott began researching his 2014 book, “New York’s Legal Landmarks: A Guide to Legal Edifices, Institutions, Lore, History, and Curiosities on the City’s Streets,” that he realized who “W.M. Evarts” was.

After Pigott appeared before CB6’s Transportation Committee on April 1, a resolution passed the full board on April 10, with 31 members voting in favor of co-naming the corner “William Evarts Way,” with three opposing and two abstaining. The resolution was passed to Councilwoman Carlina Rivera’s office for introduction into legislation, but the resolution was rescinded by a similar margin at the most recent full board and Rivera’s office said at the meeting that the co-naming is unlikely given the new information uncovered.

“We are not certain that City Council’s law department would approve the street co-naming given the controversial mark on the history here with Mr. Evarts,” Rivera’s budget director Katie Loeb said.

Throughout his political career, Evarts served as a U.S. Senator from New York for a term from 1885 to 1891, as well as Attorney General to President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State under Presidents James Garfield and Rutherford Hayes. Evarts died in 1901 at age 83, but was still well known enough to merit mentioning when the buildings were erected in 1910.

His stance regarding Mormon immigrants might have remained obscure if not for its relevance to current U.S. President Donald Trump’s proposals to ban adherents of another religion. As Trump began to pick up steam in the 2016 election, historians drew parallels between Trump’s attempts to bar Muslims from entering the country and that of Rutherford Hayes’ attempt to do the same to Mormons in 1879.

According to the 1956 article “Immigration and the ‘Mormon Question,’” Evarts had written to American diplomats in Europe, instructing them to prevent “prospective law-breakers” from departing to the United States, arguing that allowing them in would transform America into a “resort or refuge” for those wishing to practice polygamy.

Pigott, who left before the vote at the full board meeting, gave an impassioned defense of Evarts’ record, casting him as a “progressive in his day” for his representation of an ex-slave in the Lemmon v. New York case of 1860, which upheld that a slave who crosses into New York, even for purposes of transit, would be declared a freedman.

His connection to Johnson, an open racist who felt that black people should have no say in how the nation transitioned into post-slavery society, would seem to do Evarts no favors in this matter. Evarts was part of the legal team that represented Johnson in his 1868 impeachment trial, although Pigott argued that Evarts had “attacked the validity of the Articles of Impeachment without defending the president personally.” (Johnson survived the Senate but wouldn’t make it to the ballot for the next election.)

One alternative could be seeking a landmark medallion, the oval plaques that are affixed to the exterior of buildings where notable people lived in New York. However one feels about Evarts’ decision making, there is little dispute to his significance to major political matters of his day.

Most importantly, the medallions don’t require a vote before a community board or city council, though they require an agreement with the building owners (registered to East 14th Realty LLC).

A representative for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints declined to comment.

Ryan Songalia is based in New York and is part of the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism Class of 2020. He can be reached at ryansongalia@gmail.com.

2 thoughts on “Controversy over anti-Mormon rhetoric nixes street co-naming

  1. Pingback: Letters to the editor, Oct. 17 | Town & Village

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