Berlin authorities have announced they are to rename Mohrenstraße (“Moor Street”) in the city’s Mitte district after the country’s first black philosopher, Anton Wilhelm Amo.
The decision follows years of protest by postcolonial campaigners, including historians and ethnologists, who had criticised the street name as racist.
Campaigners welcomed the decision on Friday, which comes in the wake of a worldwide reassessment of the entrenched legacies of historical racism and colonialism.
“Berlin is making history,” said the association Berlin Postkolonial in a statement. “We welcome this decision as an internationally visible signal against racism in the public realm.”
The announcement followed a meeting among councillors from Berlin’s Mitte district at which the Greens and Social Democrats voted in favour of the move. They overruled a motion by the leftwing faction proposing the establishment of a naming committee which would have consulted the public over an alternative name.
Campaigners are now waiting to see if the city’s public transport authority, BVG, will still press ahead with its controversial decision last month to rename Mohrenstraße on the U2 metro line as Glinkastraße, after the Russian composer, Mikhail Glinka. That name is considered highly problematic because he and many of his works are perceived as antisemitic.
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Intensive political discussions about renaming the street have gone on for more than 15 years. It was viewed as offensive by many who argued that the name derived from black slaves in Germany in the late 17th century, while others saw it simply as an old-fashioned term not meant to be derogatory.
But the recent Black Lives Matter demonstrations gave the row a new impetus. Some protesters renamed the street and metro station George Floyd Street with temporary placards, after the African American man killed during police arrest in May. Others added an “umlaut” or two dots over the “o”, turning it into “Carrots Street”.
Opponents of the street name have long since referred to it simply as ‘M-Straße’.
The initiative to rename the street Anton Wilhelm Amo came from the association Decolonize Berlin.
Amo was brought to Berlin as a child slave from what is now Ghana in 1707 by the Dutch West India Company and had to serve as a so-called Kammer Mohr or “chamber moor” in the Prussian court. He later went on to study in Halle and Jena universities and became Germany’s first black philosopher. He is also believed to have been the first African-born student to attend a European university.
Opposition to the renaming came from the far-right party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). Its MP Martin Trefzer said those in favour of a name change were “sinning against the cultural identity of the city”. Oliver Frederici of the Christian Democrats (CDU) said “we disapprove of the obsession with renaming things”.
Mnyaka Sururu Mboro, of Berlin Postkolonial, who has been hosting critical tours on the subject for more than two decades, said: “This is a great day: Berlin is banishing an offensive word from the city, and with Amo is honouring a campaigning scholar from Africa.”
Protesters continue to call for the renaming of Onkel Toms Hütte, a metro station in the south-west of the city named after the 1852 novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, objecting to the racist connotations.