Lewes officials heard overwhelming support to permanently change West Fourth Street to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard at a Dec. 2 workshop.
More than a dozen people from all parts of the community stepped forward to urge mayor and city council to abandon the idea of an honorific name change in favor of a complete renaming of the street.
“I’ve watched most of West Fourth Street and the Lewes I grew up knowing change,” said Danielle Jones, who lives in a Fourth Street home once owned by her grandparents. “We can change an address. It’s not that hard.”
Prior to the meeting, Lewes officials were only considering a honorific name change. After hearing from the public for about an hour, council agreed to amend its Monday, Dec. 9 agenda to include consideration of a permanent or an honorific name change.
When the Rev. George Edwards of Friendship Baptist Church initially made his request for a name change more than two years ago, council aired concerns about imposing the challenges of an address change on West Fourth Street residents. Several Fourth Street residents stepped up to the podium to support the name change, including Mitzi Kratt whose home sits on the property of the gone-but-not-forgotten Happy Day Club, which attracted the likes of Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington.
“I learned a lot about the African-American community through our neighbor who is now deceased,” Kratt said. “My feeling and my husband’s feeling is whatever this African-American community wants, we want.”
Bill Collick, who grew up on Burton Avenue, said African-Americans have long contributed to Lewes, from building Beebe Hospital to working in the menhaden fish factory to educating children. Citizens elected an African-American mayor in George H.P. Smith and later named a park after him. The town’s police department was run by Beau Gooch, while the school district named a building after Fred Thomas, a longtime educator.
Collick said renaming West Fourth Street should be an easy decision.
“Let us not join in parallel with the mean-spirited vibe that engulfs our country today,” he said. “Let us come together in the spirit that has brought Lewes to the significance it has today. We aren’t as far apart as we think we are, and it’s never the wrong time to do the right thing.”
Gail Tarlecki, chair of the Delaware State Human Relations Commission, said her group assumed Lewes was considering only a permanent name change, and that it should move forward.
“Street names are symbols to which people attach meaning,” she said. “For many, having the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard would symbolically acknowledge the significant economic and social contributions of Lewes’ African-American residents, and it would foster a deserved sense of inclusion in the rich and important history of Lewes.”
Brook Hedge, Savannah Road resident, said it’s important to acknowledge history, whether it’s positive or negative.
“You want people to walk down the street and see that sign and wonder who was that person?” she said. “I’m talking a decade, two decades from now. It will force people to confront history, and I think that’s essential.”
Dupont Avenue resident Leonia Robinson said changing West Fourth Street to honor King would be the least city officials can do for the black community.
“I know deep down within your heart you have some compassion for us,” she said. “We’re not asking for a lot. I was sitting here thinking about my mother that’s been here for 96 years. She has not seen a change that’s been for the black community.”
In addition to the packed room Dec. 2, the city also received several letters in support of the name change, including a petition with 38 signatures. Mayor Ted Becker said the city has received one letter opposing the name change since the Dec. 2 meeting.
The Monday, Dec. 9 meeting will be held at the Margaret H. Rollins Community Center, 111 Adams Ave., to accommodate an anticipated larger crowd.