by Jordan Green
With one exception, white members of High Point City Council drag their heels on the proposed renaming of a significant street in honor of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
In 1989, the Greensboro City Council voted to name a street after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Twelve years later the High Point Planning & Zoning Commission voted to name a street after King, and then reversed itself in the same meeting.
To this day, High Point does not have a street named after the iconic civil rights leader, a status that makes it rare among American cities.
A split vote by city council over the issue on Monday night illustrative just how much the issue — as direct a proxy for race as any — divides the city.
High Point’s code of ordinances requires that any change in street name must be made by the planning & zoning commission following a hearing in which every affected property owner is notified. Councilman Jeff Golden, one of three black members on the nine-member board decided to get the ball rolling by proposing a recommendation that the planning & zoning commission consider the renaming Green Drive, a thoroughfare that bisects class and racial divisions in the city while passing the Municipal Building and the heart of the Furniture Market.
A number of white council members had already made it clear that they harbored reservations about the number of business owners who would be burdened with changing letterhead and other expenses, and would be swayed only by their support of the change. Some suggested the city should choose a street for renaming that would be less likely to unduly burden property owners. Two separate proposals were floated that failed to gain traction with more than two or three council members.
Mayor Bernita Sims, the first African American to serve in the position, wanted to know there was support on the council to instruct staff to research the cost of renaming Green Drive after King. Her colleagues’ silence told her everything she needed to know.
“We’ll get the petition,” she said, “get the majority of residents, business owners and renters on that street to sign it. You guys can wash your hands of it, just like Pontius Pilate. If this council can’t make it happen, we’ll do it another way.”
Sims’ motion to pursue the renaming of Green Drive failed on a vote of four to five.
Jay Wagner, who represents Ward 4, was the lone white council member willing to cross the color line.
“I’ve been watching this process for several years,” Golden said, “and it’s been several streets. Whatever street comes up, there’s a problem with it, so I’m starting to wonder if it’s the street they had a problem with or if it’s the significance of the man and what he stood for.”
Among the dozen people who spoke at the hearing, support for renaming the street ran three to one.
Dr. Michael McNamara came for another item on the agenda, a request by St. Mary’s Episcopal Church to close an alley, but felt compelled to speak on behalf of his wife’s business interests on Green Drive.
“She is a local furniture manufacturer, opened her business in 2006 despite the difficult economic times in High Point and the challenge of competing with large organizations that import and source overseas,” McNamara said. “She employs local people, pays their salary, provides them health insurance, life insurance, retirement accounts. She’s a small business owner. It’s a tough competition. Any additional cost — any additional cost —‑ will cut into the margin of her small profit that she usually uses to invest and expand.”
As evidence of his good faith, McNamara noted after the hearing that the High Point Human Relations Commission had awarded him its humanitarian award in 2001 for acting on behalf of the “downtrodden.” And responding to a remark made by Golden that the city’s failure to honor King sends a message to international furniture buyers, McNamara said, “The councilman is right: Perception is reality. If the perception is this city doesn’t value small businesses, then you’ll get vacant lots filled with weeds.”
Paul Siceloff, another St. Mary’s Episcopal Church parishioner with a financial investment in Green Drive, took the opposite position. Siceloff, who is active with the NC Shakespeare Festival, owns the 2416-2428 block of West Green Drive and leases to Mickey Truck Bodies and West Green Market.
Councilwoman Becky Smothers asked Siceloff if he had mentioned the proposed name change to his tenants, and Siceloff acknowledged that he had not.
Dorothy Darr with the Southwest Renewal Foundation, which is committed to revitalizing a faded industrialized area through which part of Green Drive passes, said her organization backs the name change.
“We have a city council that does not recognize the needs and concerns of black people,” said the Rev. Brad Lilley, who collected signatures from Green Drive business owners and residents who supported the name change over the weekend. “It should be sad to say we need to elect more black council members to change that.”