MY mother was more likely to be found doing embroidery than rushing to the barricades. There were some issues, however, on which she had clear and unshakeable views. One of these was that landed gentry, and those with inherited titles and vast family wealth, were guilty until proved innocent of having profited from the slave trade. She could never understand why the heirs of crimes against humanity flaunted their riches and status when they should have cringed with shame.

Doubtless she would have been in sympathy with actress and model Eunice Olumide, who has said that street names in Glasgow that commemorate the tobacco lords’ dirty business ought to be changed. In the Merchant City in particular there are reminders of this loathsome trade at every corner, a record of the fortunes these men made by the sale and labour of African slaves.

There’s Ingram Street, an avenue of high-end shops, honouring Archibald Ingram, plantation owner and Lord Provost. Close by is Jamaica Street, celebrating a country in which many Scots had sugar-cane and tobacco farms, where their slaves lived worse than dogs and died like flies. Round the corner is Glassford Street, after John Glassford, probably the richest of them all, with a fleet of ships servicing his New England acres. Nearby, what is now the Gallery of Modern Art was the grandiose home of another slave trader, William Cunninghame.

Read more: Slavery museum to be set up in Glasgow

On and on it goes, the city’s map a living lesson in one of history’s darkest periods. Had the slave trade happened in the middle ages you might understand if not condone its barbaric heartlessness. By the late 18th century, however, when plantation profits were showering Scotland in gold, these opportunists had no excuse for ignoring the fact that what they were doing was wrong. You can say they were men of their times, which would be true, but there were plenty of decent folk in the same period who were appalled at the exploitation of fellow human beings, and many more who, had they seen how these slaves were treated, would have shared their horror.

So far, so dreadful. Yet is it right to strip the streets of their names, and consign the agents of these deeds to oblivion? I can see there is a fine line between acknowledging the past in this way, and in so doing appearing to give these buccaneers a prominence they do not deserve. All of us would prefer that their names were added to a roll call of disgrace rather than have them venerated as the city’s biggest bankrollers.

But there is a danger that if we wipe the slate clean and rewrite Glasgow’s street names, we will be doing the very opposite of what is required. For a start, we could never use anyone else’s name, for fear that in 10 years or a century they too will fall from grace.

From Cecil Rhodes and Robert Mugabe to Lance Armstrong and Aung San Suu Kyi, popular figureheads have too often been found to have feet of clay. Just imagine if Ingram Street had been renamed Saville Row after the notorious DJ, or Spector Boulevard, before the legendary record producer was found guilty of murder.

Soviet Russia quickly learned how fickle fame and reputation are, with the result that Russian and Ukrainian map-makers and sign-painters need never fear being out of work. Meanwhile, some of us still struggle to remember that Leningrad, after a brief time as Petrograd, has once more reverted to St Petersburg.

Even if we exclude people’s names from our new cityscape, there is a bigger issue to address. Altering the fabric of where we live to accommodate modern revulsion is to sweep what should never be forgotten out of sight.

Street signs can easily be amended to include who the name refers to, in the same way that statues of those now deemed politically incorrect can carry an explanatory plaque, rather than removing all trace of them. In so doing their lingering presence serves not as a tribute but a cautionary tale.

Attempts to sanitise or vanilla-coat our historic surroundings could otherwise become a little sinister, smacking of totalitarian control. The world around us is not a wardrobe to change with fashion and taste, but a tangible reminder of where we come from, for good and – just as often – for ill. A city cannot be a chameleon, forever turning a different colour in response to each generation’s needs.

What it can do, as Glasgow and other slave-trade ports are showing, is acknowledge its part in these dreadful deeds, and take positive steps towards reparation. This can come in many forms, but during that process it must not lose sight of the terrible things that were once allowed to happen.

It is bad enough that ordinary people committed heinous acts. How much worse, and how much more deserving of notice, are those activities carried out by individuals who were welcomed into the ruling elite, who couldn’t have cared less how they made their money. This chapter in Glasgow’s story is too ugly, and too relevant still, to be sidelined or censored.