Just a week before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Lewes Mayor and City Council approved an honorific renaming of West Fourth Street to recognize the civil rights leader.
Pending approval from the state legislature, a second street sign with the name Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Way will be added above or below all street signs along West Fourth Street from Savannah Road to New Road.
Nearly 100 people packed into the Rollins Community Center Jan. 13 to hear mayor and city council vote on the issue, which dates back more than two-and-a-half years. Council was considering either a complete name change or the honorific approach.
“I think this accomplishes many of the things the Rev. [George] Edwards first expressed interest in having done,” said Mayor Ted Becker.
Although the request was for Dr. Martin Luther King Boulevard, Becker said, the city chose “Way” because West Fourth Street is not a boulevard – typically a wide tree-lined street with a median.
To further ensure Lewes’ African-American history and contributions are celebrated, city officials also created the Lewes African-American Heritage Commission, which will develop a walking tour of Lewes highlighting significant African-American community members and sites. The goal is to have the walking tour available through a brochure and on a smart-phone app.
Edwards, of Friendship Baptist Church on West Fourth Street, thanked city officials for their efforts.
“I believe we are headed in the right direction,” he said. “I’m grateful for that. We’re not living in the ’60s or ’70s; we’re living in 2020, and I certainly think we can get together and work together for the betterment of not just one race, but all races.”
Before the street signs can be added, the plan must receive approval from state legislators. Sen. Ernie Lopez, R-Lewes, has agreed to sponsor legislation and use his community transportation funds for the purchase and installation of the new street signs. He’s also agreed to fund a historic marker that will be placed somewhere in the community to recognize the African-American community. Language for the marker will be drafted by the new heritage commission.
The request dates back to March 2017, when Edwards asked the city to rename West Fourth Street to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. The request was not well received; city officials asked Edwards to consider other ways to honor King, including the honorific renaming of West Fourth Street.
The request failed to move forward, but in November 2019, Edwards again appeared before council, this time seeking the honorific renaming of West Fourth Street. At a subsequent public meeting, the full name change again gained traction, with many supporters speaking in favor.
Mayor and city council tabled a vote at its December meeting and asked for more public comment. The city sent postcards to all 2,799 property owners informing them of the proposal.
Becker said the city received 472 letters about the request, most from residents outside city limits. Of those who responded, 17 Fourth Street residents were in favor of a full name change and 28 were opposed.
Becker said he met with Edwards and several other members of the African-American community Jan. 3 to review the responses. Also attending the meeting was Lewes Historical Society Executive Director Jim Abbott and Deputy Mayor Fred Beaufait, who floated the idea of the new commission in addition to an honorific name for West Fourth Street. The community members who attended the meeting then took the idea back to their churches and organizations. It was agreed upon the next week, but Becker and Beaufait still had to get final approval from the rest of city council. The decision was unanimous Jan. 13.