Black residents of Lewes have revived efforts to rename West Fourth Street in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a measure first requested in 2017.
The request has not moved forward, and now many people question the city’s inaction since the issue was first brought before council.
City officials have agreed to consider the honorific renaming of the street, and council scheduled a meeting for 6 p.m., Monday, Dec. 2, to discuss the issue.
“I want council to know that there are a lot of people in Lewes that support this, but you guys make the decisions,” said the Rev. George Edwards of Friendship Baptist Church, who initially brought the request to council in 2017. “Friendship has done a lot for this town.”
Friendship Baptist Church, at the corner of West Fourth Street and Burton Avenue, was formed in 1957, when Otis Smith, owner of Fish Products Co., deeded one of the company’s buildings on Lewes Beach to the congregation. The building was moved to its existing location in 1969, and was later expanded through the purchase of land.
The church donated land to the city so West Fourth Street could be extended out to New Road. The city added sidewalks and trees, Edwards said.
Charlotte King, chair of the Southern Delaware Alliance for Racial Justice’s steering committee, said the goal of renaming the street is to honor the contributions and achievements of African-American residents who have lived in Lewes since at least the Colonial era.
“It’s about recognizing and applauding those who represent its history and those who continue to reside in the area,” she said. “It’s about saying thank you and preserving the memories of their presence.”
West Fourth Street and the surrounding area was once a hub for the African-American community of Lewes as a place to live, attend church and enjoy entertainment.
The Happy Day Club at the corner of West Fourth Street and DuPont Avenue once attracted the likes of Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington.
The area was also home to two prominent black churches – St. Paul’s Methodist Church on West Fourth Street and St. George’s AME on Park Avenue. The former was converted into a home about five years ago.
Alicia Jones, Lewes resident and alliance member, said there were segregated schools and beaches, and black people had to go to the hospital basement to receive healthcare.
“There’s a sense of latent racism I find still existing in Lewes, because I feel if this wasn’t the black community coming forward with this request, it would’ve gotten a response earlier,” she said. “I don’t see anything in Lewes that represents the diversity that’s spoken about in the mission statement,” referring to Lewes’ core values, which include “Lewes is a community of diversity.”
She said there are a number of street names in the area she considers offensive, including Plantation Road and Washington, Madison and Jefferson avenues, each named after presidents who owned slaves.
Aside from a historic marker on Pilottown Road recognizing St. George’s AME and Buffalo Soldiers, she said, she isn’t aware of anything the Lewes community has done to honor the history of the African-American community.
Edwards first discussed the request with mayor and city council in April 2017. It received some support from members of council, but others shared concerns about the impact it would have on existing residents.
At the time, Mayor Ted Becker suggested adding it as an honorific name, but he also recommended Edwards and others discuss alternative ways to honor Dr. King and the city’s African-American history.
At council’s Nov. 4 meeting, Councilman Rob Morgan apologized for the delay.
“I don’t know what my share was in dropping the ball, but we are very sympathetic to this,” he said.