Proponents of changing West Fourth Street to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard met Dec. 16 to discuss building support for their request.
“We wanted to make sure some of the people on Fourth Street and the people that live in Lewes are in accordance with this,” said The Rev. George Edwards Sr. of Friendship Baptist Church on West Fourth Street, which hosted the event. “We wanted to explain to them just why we want to do this and the purpose of doing it.”
Edwards said the goal is to honor the contributions made by the city’s African-American residents. West Fourth Street and surrounding streets were once the hub of the town’s African-American community.
“There are other organizations that support this,” he said. “This isn’t a one-group thing. It’s people from the entire Lewes community and Sussex County that desire to see the name changed.”
Plans call for a silent vigil before Lewes Mayor and City Council’s expected vote Monday, Jan. 13, Edwards said. He also plans to reach out to city churches to seek their support.
Bill Collick, who grew up on Burton Avenue, said West Fourth Street was the dividing between the black and white populations. While there was separation, he said, the Lewes youth played together at Shipcarpenter’s Square.
“It was a very positive gathering place for kids … there was a lot of respect from both groups of people,” he said.
He said that respect allowed a smooth transition from segregation to integration in local schools.
“Some of the school districts had problems, but it was relatively smooth here,” he said. “I think that’s partially as a result of West Fourth Street.”
African-Americans have long contributed to Lewes, Collick said, from Mayor George H.P. Smith and Police Chief Ronald “Beau” Gooch to the people who worked at the menhaden fish factories, Lewes Dairy, Robinson’s IGA and other landmark businesses.
“I’d like to see this done,” Collick said. “It would be a great thing as we look to preserve the entire rich history of Lewes.”
Name change opposition
But there has been pushback. City officials were presented Dec. 9 with a petition signed by 26 people against a name change. Twenty-one of the signatures are from residents of West Fourth Street, while five are from nearby addresses.
As of Jan. 2, the city had received letters from 81 people in favor of changing the street name and letters from 93 people against it. The city had also received several petitions, including a petition with 38 signatures supporting an honorific renaming; however, it was sent Dec. 1 prior to the city’s reconsideration of a full name change. When the request was made in 2016, a petition with more than 100 signatures was submitted supporting a name change.
Based on letters, many who oppose the name change said they support honorific renaming. Reasons for opposition vary, from fear of setting a precedent and worry the request is politically motivated to concern about the cost to the city to replace signs and possible confusion for visitors. Many letters suggested the city consider naming a new street for King so as to not inconvenience residents. Others suggested renaming the street for a local African-American to celebrate their contributions to Lewes.
Barry Schneider, a Fourth Street resident for more than 25 years, wrote to the city about the hardship an address change would cause him and his wife. He said the change would require extensive paperwork and legal work, and cause confusion for family and friends.
“Making Fourth Street an honorary boulevard is a happy medium,” he wrote. “That would be one way to pay our respect to MLK and cause no hardship on the residents who live on Fourth Street.”
He also suggested the city consider renaming Canalfront Park in honor of King.
Pilottown Village resident Jim Sleasman also wrote to oppose the change. “The issue at hand is the unintended consequences of a decision to rename the street,” he said. “Although it sounds like a simple and honorable gesture…when one drills down to the consequences of such a decision, it is quite burdensome on all the residents in our community and others along West Fourth Street.”
All letters sent to mayor and city council are public record and available for review at city hall.
Mayor and city council are expected to vote on whether to accept or reject an honorific or complete name change for West Fourth Street at its Jan. 13 meeting. They could also choose to reject both options.
To gather public input, the city sent out 2,799 postcards to all property owners informing them of the consideration. Public comment will be accepted until 4 p.m., Friday, Jan. 10. Letters may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org or Mayor & City Council, P.O. Box 227, Lewes, DE 19958.
What happens if the name change is adopted?
If the city moves forward with either an honorific or full name change for West Fourth Street, they will have to work with county and possibly state officials to make it happen.
For an honorific name change, City Solicitor Glenn Mandalas said, city officials would work with local legislators to obtain sponsorship for a bill that would go before the General Assembly for a vote.
On the other hand, a complete name change does not require approval by the General Assembly or the Department of Transportation, as the street is owned and maintained by the city. For either change, officials would work with Sussex County 911 officials to ensure the change is made for first responders and other essential purposes.
Ray V. Daiutolo Sr., spokesman for the U.S. Postal Service’s Delaware district, said mail carriers would continue to deliver mail and packages to an old address for 12 months following a street name change. If the city chooses to move forward with an honorific name change, Daiutolo said, mail with the honorific name will not be delivered and homeowners should use the primary street name on all communications.
In the event of a full name change, change of address forms would have to be filled out for any magazine subscriptions and bills received in the mail. A change of address form may be picked up at the post office and filled out at no cost. It may also be changed online for $1.05.
For a driver’s license and registration, Delaware law requires someone to notify Vehicle Registration and Driver's License Sections of the Division of Motor Vehicles within 30 days of an address change. That can be done by providing in writing the driver’s license number, the name as it appears on the license and the new address, and sending it to the Division of Motor Vehicles. To change the actual license, someone must go into the DMV to change it at no cost.
This is not the first time Lewes has been embroiled in controversy over the renaming of streets. For many years in the 1930s, town officials and residents debated changing several street names. A News Journal article from Aug. 8, 1933, says “indignation is running rife” as town council chose to modernize street names. It was then the original Ships Carpenter Street was changed to Park Avenue.
Then a March 2, 1937 article reported Mayor David W. Burbage and the town council unanimously voted to change the names of several streets back to their colonial names, a recommendation brought forward by the Rotary Club in an effort to preserve the town’s history in the wake of modernization. Among those changed were State Street to Savannah Road, King Street to Kings Highway, a section of Park Avenue to Shipcarpenter Street and a portion of Front Street to Pilottown Road.
Another change, likely unfamiliar to modern-day residents, was Mulberry Street to Knitting Street.
A week after council’s action, the News Journal published another article saying 24 Mulberry Street residents objected to the name change, even submitting a petition in hopes of stopping it. It remained Knitting Street until April 1939, when it was changed back to Mulberry. The News Journal reported on April 20, 1939, “Practically every resident on the two-block-long street appeared this week before mayor and commissioners and practically demanded that it remain Mulberry Street forever.”
Delaware’s MLK Jr. Boulevards
- Dover - After a several-decades effort to rename several streets in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Dover officials voted Jan. 19, 2013, to rename Court Street, Duke of York Street and William Penn Street to Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
- Wilmington - Wilmington Boulevard was renamed to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in 1987. The original plan was to rename King Street, but merchants objected to the change. Although the street was dedicated in July 1987, street signs were changed over several years.