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Renaming of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard impacts community 18 years after change

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A Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. sign is pictured on Feb. 19, 2023, in Chapel Hill, N.C.

Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard was renamed from Airport Road nearly 18 years ago, a decision by the Chapel Hill Town Council that community members still appreciate to this day. 

A committee on renaming the road was formed following a January 2004 petition by then-Mayor Pro Tem Edith Wiggins to change the road name to honor the civil rights legend. The renaming, which was supported by the local NAACP, was approved in December 2004 by the Chapel Hill Town Council, and dedicated in May 2005. 

More than 900 streets across the country are named after King. According to research from geographer Derek Alderman, census tracts that include streets named after King are home to significantly more Black residents than other areas of cities. The per capita income is also lower on average in those areas.

Yah-I Ausar, owner and chef of Vegan Flava Cafe, said he hopes the renaming still helps people in the community act both consciously and subconsciously with King's work in mind.

“It's a constant reminder of what he stood for and what folks who carry on his work stand for, so it's very important to have that street name visible and viable,” Ausar said.

Though the renaming recognized a civil rights figure and activist, Michael Newell, the operator of Dame's Chicken & Waffles, said marginalized groups and communities continue to struggle with the lack of representation in Chapel Hill.

Newell said there are not many spaces that are owned by people who belong to marginalized groups on Franklin Street or in the rest of Chapel Hill, but there are moments when people are able to come together to create safe spaces. Newell's business recently held an “impromptu jazz party” that many individuals from different marginalized communities attended, he said.

Newell also said he was a student at UNC when he first saw the changed street sign and instantly felt more comfortable. About 40 percent of UNC’s student population identifies as non-white.

"When I see Martin Luther King being recognized, there is always a part of me that hopes that that is an injury to people learning more about other aspects of the Civil Rights Movement and African American culture and not just stopping at that one individual," Nowell said.

UNC student Tolu Dapo-Adeyemo said they agree with the name change, but noted the Town of Chapel Hill needs to give back to underrepresented communities — especially the Black unhoused population.

"It's definitely also easy to just rename the street and have that be the end of it when really Chapel Hill needs to do more for its current Black population," Dapo-Adeyemo said.

They said they know Black UNC students who have expressed distrust in the University's administration and even other students making them feel unsafe.

“Working with the Black student organizations, uplifting them, shining them out more often and making sure they feel welcomed on campus is really important to representing marginalized groups here in Chapel Hill,” Dapo-Adeyemo said.

Ausar said the Town can improve on representing marginalized communities through education, including by providing life-skills classes.

"There's no reason why folks in the community that hold certain positions can’t also come here and utilize the space and community centers and make sure that there are educational classes that allow people to be that much more informed, and that much more empowered to better their lives and the lives of others,” Ausar said. 

@DTHCityState | city@dailytarheel.com 

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